Shabazz Napier scored 22 points for Connecticut, which never trailed last night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Huskies opened a 15-point first-half lead and then held off several rallies by Kentucky’s five freshman starters.
UConn’s fourth title comes a year after the school was ineligible for the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament due to academic shortcomings. It also comes in the postseason debut of coach Kevin Ollie, who took over the program after Jim Calhoun’s retirement in September 2012. The Huskies won three titles during Calhoun’s 26-year tenure.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Ollie, 41, who played under Calhoun at Connecticut from 1991-95 before having a 13-year NBA playing career. “I’m the first one to deflect all of the attention. Those players, they should get all the attention. They stuck with it through the down times, when we were losing. And they always believed this path was possible. That’s the beautiful thing about this championship for me and I’ll reflect on their toughness and togetherness.”
Ollie, who thanked Calhoun at the trophy presentation ceremony for “paving the way,” is the first coach to win an NCAA championship in his first two seasons as coach since Steve Fisher at the University of Michigan in 1989. Only one active coach was younger than Ollie when he captured a championship: Billy Donovan, who won the first of his back-to-back titles at the University of Florida at age 40 in 2006.
“I hate losing, but I’m happy he won,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Ollie, who receives a $66,666 bonus for capturing the national title.
The game was seen in an average of 12.9 percent of homes in the top 56 U.S. television markets, CBS Corp. said. That’s a 9.8 percent decline from the 14.3 major-market rating the championship drew in 2013, when Louisville beat Michigan, and higher than the 12.1 rating for the 2012 championship between Kentucky and Kansas.
Connecticut is the second-worst ranked team to win a championship since the NCAA tournament began seeding schools in 1979. UConn was seeded seventh out of 16 teams in the East Region, putting the Huskies at no better than 25th among the 68 schools in the tournament field. The only lower seed to win the NCAA tournament was Villanova as an eighth seed in 1985.
Connecticut (32-8) was a 2 1/2-point underdog against Kentucky, according to oddsmakers, the fifth straight tournament game the Huskies had been considered underdogs.
The Huskies also upset No. 2 seed Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State and No. 4 Michigan State in the East Region before ending top-ranked Florida’s 30-game winning streak in the Final Four to reach the championship game.
Connecticut’s 100-1 championship odds entering the tournament were tied for 22nd in the field.
“We were hungry,” said Napier, a senior guard who went 8-of-16 from the field last night and was voted the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. “When we were prevented from going to the postseason, and it wasn’t our fault, we worked from that day on. Coach Ollie told us it was going to be a two-year plan, and since that day we believed.”
Connecticut is now tied with Duke University for the fifth-most NCAA tournament titles in men’s college basketball history. Only UCLA (11), Kentucky (8), Indiana (5) and North Carolina (5) have won more. Kentucky (29-11) was denied its second championship in the past three years.
The Wildcats also had an improbable run to the championship game as the eighth seed out of the Midwest Region.
Kentucky upset top-seeded and previously unbeaten Wichita State in its second tournament game and knocked off defending national champion Louisville. The Wildcats then rallied to beat a pair of No. 2 regional seeds, Michigan and Wisconsin, to reach last night’s final.
Connecticut raced to a 15-point first-half lead behind its backcourt duo of Napier and Ryan Boatright, who combined for 16 of the Huskies’ first 24 points.
When UConn pushed its lead to 30-15, it was the largest deficit of the tournament for Kentucky, which had fought back from at least nine points down in its previous four games.
The Wildcats pulled within 35-31 at halftime before Aaron Harrison hit a 3-pointer to start the second half. It was one of three occasions on which Kentucky pulled within a point during the second half. Each time, Connecticut answered.
When Harrison missed a 3-pointer that could have put Kentucky ahead for the first time with 7 1/2 minutes left, UConn hit consecutive 3-point shots and the Wildcats never got closer than four points the rest of the way.
“We had our chances to win,” said Calipari, whose team missed 11 of 24 free throw attempts. “It stayed a one-point game. We were missing shots, missing free throws and we hung in there, these kids never gave up. We just didn’t have enough.”
Kentucky had been the nation’s No. 1-ranked team in the preseason after Calipari brought in a recruiting class that featured a record six McDonald’s All-Americans. But the Wildcats lost 10 games during the season, dropping out of the Associated Press top-25 poll before their tournament run.
The last team to lose the title game with five freshman starters was Michigan’s Fab Five in 1992. No team has won a championship starting more than three freshmen, the last being Kentucky’s 2012 squad. All three were taken in the first round of the National Basketball Association draft that year, with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as the top two picks.
Kentucky had two freshmen as first-round picks last year. This year’s freshmen, including James Young, who scored a team-high 20 points last night, and twin brothers Aaron and Andrew Harrison, haven’t said whether they’ll return to college or enter the NBA draft, continuing a trend of Calipari recruits to leave school after one year.
NBA rules require players to be at least 19 years old or one year removed from their high school graduation. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said he’d like to consider raising the league’s age limit by one year, reducing the one-and-done trend in college basketball.
“Now that the season’s over, it is about the players. It’s no longer about the team,” Calipari said. “They sacrificed to each other now, for our team and our program and our school. Now it’s about them. And we’ll sit down with each of them and they will make decisions for themselves.”
The combined seeding of 15 for Connecticut and Kentucky was the highest in the title game. The previous record was 11 in 2011, when UConn was a No. 3 seed and beat eighth-seeded Butler in Calhoun’s next-to-last season.
The women’s basketball team at Connecticut will seek to win its ninth national championship tonight, when the Huskies face Notre Dame in a battle of unbeaten schools. UConn in 2004 became the only school to win both the men’s and women’s basketball titles in the same season.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at email@example.com Dex McLuskey