UCONN - The King of College Hoops
From the Jim Hurley Network Staff
Contributing Sportsbook Editor
It was right around 11:30 p.m. Eastern time on Monday night - just moments after the UConn Huskies hung on to beat 2 1/2-point favorite Kentucky 60-54 in a rather strange NCAA Championship Game (which we nailed right here on the site, along with the total never coming close to 135)- when one thought came to mind:
Wonder what the kids at St. Joe's were thinking!
As you no doubt remember, this improbable UConn run right through the NCAA Tourney started with an 89-81 overtime triumph by Connecticut against a gritty/gutty St. Joe's team way back on March 20th in Buffalo, but keep in mind the Huskies were down in that second-round tilt 70-67 with just 49.2 seconds left in regulation play when UConn center Amida Brimah scored on an old-fashioned three-point play - and you could say Kevin Ollie's guys never did look back the rest of the way.
Fast forward to Monday night in Arlington and the Huskies - who shot a blistering 18-of-20 from the free-throw line against St. Joe's - were finishing the job with more brilliant work from the charity stripe as Connecticut drained all 10 of its foul shots against Kentucky and actually finished the tourney shooting 101-of-115 overall from the free-throw line - that's a mind-blowing 87.8 percent, folks.
Naturally, in the ying-and-yang world of college basketball, the flip side is Kentucky cost itself a ninth national title by shooting a horrific 13-of-24 from the foul line (that's 54.2 percent) but even though the doom-and-gloom media members were all over that stat (as are we!) there were lots more reasons why the national title is headed to Storrs and not Lexington today.
Let's dig a little deeper as we write a post-script on the national championship game and the 2013-14 season...
NCAA TOURNAMENT - CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
AT&T Stadium - Arlington, TX
UCONN 60, KENTUCKY 54
The Kentucky Wildcats scored all of four points in the game's final five minutes as John Calipari's normally cool-under-pressure freshmen-laden squad missed five field-goal tries, two free throws and committed a couple of costly turnovers all after heading into the five-minute mark down just 54-50.
There would be no more three-point bombs from Aaron Harrison to save 'em on this night, and there wasn't exactly heads-up plays made very late in this game when Kentucky elected not to foul and thereby extend this title tilt - that falls on both Calipari and his kids who botched up the game's final minute badly and didn't really give themselves a shot to steal this one late as had happened in prior NCAA Tournament games against Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Again, rotten free-throw shooting killed the ?Cats, but here's what else conspired to keep the SEC crew out of the winner's circle:
Connecticut (32-8) famously outrebounded Kentucky 33-to-32 - that may not seem like a big deal but everyone thought that's where the ?Cats held a major advantage and yet the Huskies did a staunch job keeping Julius Randle and mates off the glass.
In our Jim Sez Championship Game preview, we also stated unequivocally that if anyone wanted to beat Kentucky (29-11) in this tourney then it had to hold the Wildcats to a sub-50 percent field-goal rate and that's just what Ollie's defense-first club did as Kentucky connected on just 18-of-46 FG tries (39.1 percent) and only a couple of times allowed the 'Cats to get off a spurt but UConn had built up a neat first-half cushion and so Kentucky never "ever" took the lead here.
Also, we accurately predicted that if Connecticut was gonna win than its bench had to contribute on the stat sheet and do not - for a single minute - underestimate the in-the-paint defense/rebounding work of the aforementioned Brimah (4 boards and great defense against Randle) and swingman Lasan Kromah (6 rebs, 4 points, 2 assists and solid "D").
Okay, so maybe we're "burying the lead" here and that's the tandem of UConn guards Shabazz Napier (22 points and 6 rebounds) and oft-gimpy Ryan Boatright (14 points, 4 rebs and 3 assists) were magnificent when they had to be but - let's face it - Napier (four turnovers) really got way too casual with the ball for periods of time in the second half and Boatright (three turnovers) made some bonehead plays himself and you got the feeling that despite their combined 13-of-22 FG shooting and 6-of-6 free-throw shooting these dudes were gonna hand the game to the Wildcats who surely had mucho opportunities to wrench this game away but failed to do so.
When you came down to it, a missed triple by Aaron Harrison with seven-plus minutes left would have given the 'Cats their first lead of the night, but instead Napier and then fellow senior Niels Giffey banged home back-to-back trifectas that really cemented things, but we're still wondering why Calipari didn't insist on more shots for Randle, who drained 3-of-7 FGs but could have been useful taking some foul line area jumpers, and why no significant minutes for F/C Marcus Lee, who was a non-factor in his six minutes on the floor - didn't "Coach Cal" have more confidence in him after recent efforts against Wisky and Michigan?
No question that while Napier - the MVP of this whole tourney - was brilliant it was the sideline work of Ollie that really stole this whole show:
Consider that the second-year Huskies boss-man had his club climb out of a 16-4 deficit in the Final Four win against Florida, and yet he wouldn't allow his club to be leapfrogged after a 30-15 start against Kentucky - in the end his defensive preachings worked wonders and a Kentucky team that shot 50 percent or better against everyone in this tourney field managed a couple of monster dunks (especially that one by talented lefty James Young, who finished with a team-best 20 points) but no dagger-like threes and no real damage despite 10 offensive boards.
Make no mistake: Both of these teams really flattened out in a kooky second half where only 48 total points were scored but UConn stayed with its basic principle of playing in-your-grill defense and the Huskies made sure Napier took the most important shots even if some of 'em were from just inside halfcourt!
All hail the Huskies - the school's fourth national title in 15 years has 'em breathing that North Carolina, Indiana and Duke rarified air.
To think that whole tourney run wouldn't have happened had St. Joe's not fouled Brimah some three weeks ago - wow!
Finally, take note of how the major conferences fared spreadwise in this year's tournament while heading into tonight's championship game:
CONFERENCE RECORD PCT.
SEC 10-3-2 .769
AAC 8-4-0 .667
Pac-12 7-7-0 .500
Big 10 6-7-2 .461
ACC 5-6-1 .454
Big East 2-4-0 .333
Big 12 4-10-0 .286
In the end, NCAA Tournament Betting Favorites finished up the "Big Dance" with a 29-32-4 ATS (against the spread) record to go along with two pick 'ems and how about the fact Connecticut covered all six of its tourney games with four of 'em coming in underdog roles and one other (versus Iowa State) a pick 'em affair?