Veteran Connecticut guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright dominated Kentucky's kids just as they did against Florida in the semifinals as the seventh-seeded Huskies won their second NCAA championship in four seasons, 60-54, Monday night at AT&T Stadium in front of a record crowd of 79,238.
Kentucky's "one-and-done" wonders got to the final with an all-freshman starting lineup, knocking over proven powers left and right from unbeaten Wichita State to defending national champion Louisville. But beating Connecticut was a bridge too far for the Wildcats.
Somehow it was fitting that Napier's pass underneath to Lasan Kromah led to two foul shots for the six-point margin with 25.1 seconds left. At the other end, Wildcats twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison missed desperate three-pointers before Ryan Boatright rebounded and dribbled out the clock.
Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, in his second season after succeeding Jim Calhoun, let out a primal scream at the buzzer in celebration of UConn's fourth NCAA title. "We were last," Ollie said, referring to UConn's postseason ban a year ago, "and now we're first. We always do it together."
Napier, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, had 22 points and six rebounds. Boatright added 14 points and Niels Giffey, a veteran of the 2011 title team with Napier, had 10. James Young topped Kentucky with 20 points and seven rebounds and Julius Randle had 10 points and six rebounds. But the Harrison twins were ordinary as Andrew finished with eight points and five assists and Aaron had seven points.
UConn, which went 10-for-10 from the foul line Monday night, shot 101-for-115 (87.8 percent) in the tourney, breaking the record of 87 percent (47-for-54) by St. John's in 1969. Kentucky was no match, going 13-for-24.
If Connecticut was conceded one clear advantage over John Calipari's all-freshman lineup, it was in the backcourt with Napier and Boatright. It showed early as the veterans totaled 16 points in a 24-9 run to build a 30-15 lead with 5:59 left in the opening half.
Speaking of the play of Napier and Boatright, Ollie said, "They've done that the whole season. They held the Harrison twins and Wilbekin and [Michael] Frazier. But it was a total team effort."
Signs of a potential blowout were brewing, but Calipari switched to a zone that slowed the Huskies' guards.
The Wildcats had trailed by at least nine points in their previous three games and didn't panic, putting together a 16-5 run to cut their halftime deficit to 35-31. It seemed the Wildcats again were in position for a trademark second-half comeback, but before heading to the locker room, Ollie told the CBS audience, "We're a second-half team, too."
Aaron Harrison opened the second half with a corner three-pointer to cut the Wildcats' deficit to one point, but the veteran Huskies dug in their heels as the pressure climbed. UConn gained some breathing room with a 9-2 run capped by Napier's jumper for a 48-39 cushion, but Young brought the Wildcats back within one for the third time in the second half, scoring six points in an 8-0 run.
Once again, that's where the Huskies drew a line in the sand. Napier banged in an NBA-length three-pointer that was followed by Giffey's three and Boatright's step-back jumper for a 56-50 cushion.
Boatright said of playing through an ankle sprain in the second half, "Heart, man. I came too far to lose right now. I worked too hard all my life to be in this position, and I wasn't going to let an ankle sprain stop me."
Kentucky couldn't stop Connecticut, and after so many comebacks on their remarkable run, the Wildcats weren't tough enough to ever take a lead on the Huskies.
"Late in the game, we tried going to James Young. We tried doing different things," Calipari said, "but we didn't have enough answers to finish that [Connecticut] team."