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Monday, April 7, 2014
Five Things: Huskies come full circle

By Eamonn Brennan


ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Connecticut Huskies are your 2014 national champions.

Shabazz Napier closed the loop.

Four years ago, in a massive Texas football stadium, Napier danced atop a confetti-covered court. On that day in 2011, the Huskies were led to an unlikely national title run by a brilliant, versatile, gifted guard. Napier was a supporting player on that team, and a crucial one. On Monday night, with Kemba Walker in the house, Napier was the star.

His feat -- one shared by fellow seniors Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander -- was a first. That trio became the first players to win a national title as freshmen and as seniors.

No stat could better sum up the remarkable, resilient ride this program, and these players, have given their fans.

UConn's guards were disruptive early, and great late.

Chief among the major strategic questions entering Monday night -- from Kentucky's monstrous offensive rebounding advantage to the willingness of each team to get out and run -- was which set of guards would prove too much for the other. Aaron and Andrew Harrison had the huge size advantage over Napier and Ryan Boatright, but the Huskies' guards were quicker, more dynamic and more disruptive on the defensive end. In short: speed vs. power.

For most of the first half, speed won the day. Boatright and Napier were pesky on loose balls and 50-50 scrums, and their ability to break down the defense off the dribble was a massive problem for Kentucky. Napier in particular was brilliant: He finished the first half with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field, including 3-of-7 shooting from 3, and two steals. UConn had 11 points off turnovers in the first half. Boatright, meanwhile, was perfect from the field (3-for-3) and the free throw line (2-for-2) in the first half, though he played fewer minutes. Both players were swatting and running the break any time the Wildcats put the ball on the floor, and they broke down UK's defense with relative ease on the other end.

In the second half, Napier and Boatright exerted a level of control no other backcourt was capable of this season. Napier cleared out for 3s; Boatright skittered into the lane for easy jumpers. The duo worked clock, found open spaces in the UK defense, earned fouls, kept possession away from the Wildcats. Slowly but surely, Napier and Boatright bled the game dry. They were peerless.

Don't worry, though: Kentucky made its run.

No team in the tournament was better at blitzing away first-half deficits than Kentucky. On Monday, the Wildcats didn't even wait until the second half.

Thanks in large part to Napier, UConn led 30-15 with 5:59 to play in the first half. Julius Randle didn't yet have a field goal, and was reportedly cramping on the sidelines. The Wildcats were stuttering through one of their least efficient offensive stretches all season. And then, as they have all tournament, the Cats went nuts: James Young hit a 3, Aaron Harrison got a steal and a fast-break dunk, Young hit another 3, Andrew Harrison splashed a sharp kickout from Randle, Dakari Johnson earned a trip to the line, and Randle got two interior finishes in a row -- his first two buckets of the game. After playing scattered basketball for 15 minutes, the Wildcats had cut UConn's halftime lead to just four.

After one of the most impressive and daunting five-game runs in NCAA tournament history, this version of Kentucky -- fluid, powerful, unstoppable -- should have felt like the standard issue. But one couldn't help but watch and marvel at how different this version is from the one that so often disappointed for months before it.

UConn's defense -- and its defensive rebounding -- held firm.

This season, the Huskies allowed opponents to grab 32.7 percent of their misses, ranking 247th in the country. That was the one area where UConn's defense -- an underrated unit all season, and a lockdown group in March -- was demonstrably weak.

Not Monday night. Against the best offensive rebounding team in the country -- a Wildcats team that earned its way to the national title game by brutalizing opponents on the offensive glass, and getting second chances on 43 percent of its shots -- the Huskies largely controlled the glass. UK's final offensive rebounding rate tally: 27.8 percent. Crazy.

Indeed, when the game hung in the balance late in the second half -- as UConn clung desperately to its one- or two-possession lead -- it was the Huskies, and not the Wildcats, who repeatedly cleared the glass. Fitting, then, that Boatright's defensive rebound with five seconds remaining was the final play of the game.

Kentucky fell short, but etched its legend anyway.

A Fab Five-level recruiting class that staggered out of the gate and disappointed everyone -- not least its own coach -- for whole months. A No. 8 seed in the toughest bracket in recent NCAA tournament memory. Four wins of five points or fewer. Two game-winning shots by the same player, on the same spot of the floor, in the Final Four and Elite Eight. More talent than most coaches have in their whole lives.

Like the Fab Five itself, these mercurial Wildcats fell short in the end. But they won't soon be forgotten.