By Eddie Pells
ARLINGTON, TEXAS: Shabazz Napier walked slowly through the hallway of the stadium — the tears still drying, the twine from the cut-down net still hanging around his neck.
“Bittersweet. Bittersweet. Bittersweet,” he said, over and over again.
Bitter because it’s over. Sweet because UConn won it all after being left behind and told to go away.
Napier turned in one final masterpiece as a college player Monday night, lifting the Huskies to a 60-54 win over Kentucky’s freshmen and bringing home a championship hardly anyone not wearing a UConn uniform thought was possible.
“It’s unbelievable because those guys, my players, stayed with the program,” coach Kevin Ollie said.
Led by 22 points from Napier, 14 points from Ryan Boatright and strong defensive games from both, the Huskies (32-8) won it all a short year after they were barred from March Madness because of academic problems. That triggered the departure of five players, and coach Jim Calhoun left because of health concerns.
For those who remained, it stoked a fire no one could put out.
“You’re looking at the hungry Huskies,” Napier told the crowd and TV audience as confetti rained down. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you banned us.”
UConn never trailed in the final. The Huskies led by as many as 15 in the first half and watched the Wildcats (29-11) trim the deficit to one with 8:13 left. But Aaron Harrison, who pulled out wins with clutch 3-pointers in Kentucky’s last three games, missed a 3 from the left corner that would’ve given the Cats the lead. Kentucky never got that close again.
One key difference in a six-point loss: Kentucky’s 11 missed free throws — a flashback of sorts for coach John Calipari, whose Memphis team blew a late lead against Kansas after missing multiple free throws in the 2008 final. The Wildcats went 13 for 24. UConn went 10 for 10, including Lasan Kromah’s two to seal the game with 25.1 seconds left.
Calipari said he decided not to foul at the end “because they’re not missing.”
“These kids aren’t machines. They’re not robots. They’re not computers,” Calipari said. “I say it again: I wish I had an answer for them later in the game where I could have done something to just click it to where we needed it to go. That 3 in the corner, if that would have gone, maybe the game changes a little bit, but it didn’t.”
In all, Calipari’s One and Doners got outdone by a more fundamentally sound, more-seasoned group that came into this tournament a seventh-seeded afterthought but walked away with the program’s fourth national title since 1999. They are the highest seed to win it all since Rollie Massimino’s eighth-seeded Villanova squad in 1985.
Napier now goes down with Kemba Walker, Emeka Okafor, Rip Hamilton, Ray Allen and all those other UConn greats. This adds to the school’s titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011.
“It puts him right up there with all the great guards that came through the university,” Hamilton said. “The one thing — we have a legacy of producing great guards, and showing up at the right time, and he displayed it again.”
A year ago, the Huskies were preparing for their first season in the new American Athletic Conference after the Catholic Big East schools decide to form a smaller league and none of the so-called power conferences invited UConn. Calhoun left and the program was turned over to the inexperienced Ollie. Most damaging, though, was the NCAA ban that triggered an exodus of five key players to the NBA or other schools.
Ollie didn’t give up on the guys who stuck around. He figured out how to make their grit, court sense and loyalty pay off.
“From the beginning, coach Ollie told us that we have a chance to be on top if we worked hard,” Napier said. “He always told us that. We always knew that the words were: ‘If we work hard.”
They did Monday, and stayed one step ahead of Kentucky all night, holding off furious rally after furious rally.
Kentucky’s biggest push started when James Young (20 points, seven rebounds) posterized Amida Brimah with a monster dunk to start a three-point play and trigger an 8-0 run.
In the middle of that, Boatright, who shut down Harrison’s twin brother, Andrew, most of the night, twisted his left ankle while receiving an innocuous-looking pass from Napier. He called a timeout. Got it worked on and came back out.
“I’ve got a lot of heart and I wasn’t coming out,” Boatright said. “We put in too much work all year for me to give up on an ankle sprain.”
Napier and Niels Giffey made 3s on UConn’s two possessions after the timeout, and that one-point lead was back up to five — fairly comfortable by this tight, taut, buzzer-beating tournament’s standards.
The big question in Kentucky is what will happen to all those freshmen. Julius Randle (10 points, six rebounds) is a lottery pick if he leaves for the NBA. Young and the Harrison brothers could be first-rounders, too.
On the UConn side, Napier is a more marginal prospect.
On the final night of this unpredictable college basketball season, though, that really wasn’t the point.
“It’s not about going to the next level, it’s not about going to the pros, but playing for your university, playing for your teammates,” Giffey said. “And I’m so proud of all the guys on this team that stuck with this team.”