Connecticut stars in underdog role to win national championship
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Connecticut Huskies lost their head coach, their teammates, their chance to play in the NCAA tournament for a year. They were castoffs, unwanted mutts without a home, told they had no chance.
Well, look who's woofing now.
Playing with a chip-on-their-shoulder mentality and poise down the stretch, UConn starred in the underdog role for the second time in four years, knocking off Kentucky 60-54 on Monday night in North Texas.
|BOATRIGHT HELPS UCONN WIN TITLE|
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ryan Boatright has been through his share of adversity on and, heartbreakingly, off the court.
Whatever happens, the proud, gritty Boatright finds a way to fight through it.
Capping a difficult season that included the death of his cousin, Boatright was at his best on college basketball's biggest stage, helping Connecticut win its second national title in four years with a 60-54 victory against Kentucky on Monday night.
A highly touted freshman when he arrived in Storrs, Conn., Boatright played with a chip on his shoulder that sometimes came across as arrogance, particularly when it came to questioning his coaches.
He matured more as the years went by and this season teamed with Shabazz Napier to form a dynamic duo in UConn's backcourt.
Boatright's season threatened to come unraveled in January, when his cousin, 20-year-old Arin Williams, was shot to death in his hometown of Aurora, Ill. The news hit him hard; they grew up together in the same house.
Boatright worked his way through the grief and kept playing, fighting through some difficult games late in the season.
Once the NCAA tournament started, he became a dual-threat force, breaking down opponents by getting into the lane and hounding opposing point guards with a pit-bull ferocity.
Boatright scored in double figures every game in the tournament and was a defensive menace, swiping four steals against Michigan State in the East Regional final and badgering Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin into his worst offensive game of the season in the national semifinals.
Boatright was a difference-maker in the title game, too.
He and Napier combined to out-flank the athletic Wildcats, pushing the Huskies to a 15-point lead in the first half. Boatright repeatedly got into the lane against Kentucky, driving for layups and kicking out to shooters, and left the Wildcats flatfooted with one reverse-his-course dribble that led to a reverse layup.
A feisty 6-foot combo guard, Boatright also flexed his defensive muscles, helping hold Kentucky twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison to nine combined points on 6-of-16 shooting.
And when UConn needed a shot the most, it was Boatright, not Napier who hit it, dropping in a step-back jumper that pushed the Huskies lead to 56-50 with a little more than 4 minutes left after Kentucky had rallied.
''Boatright's shot, huge shot, [it's] like they're dying and he makes a step-back,'' Kentucky head coach John Calipari said.
Soon, it will be time for Boatright, a junior, to step back and assess his future.
Though undersized -- a whopping 168 pounds -- he's proven that he can handle himself against the best in the country. He also has good shooting touch and range, a superb first step and ability to finish at the rim and, every coach's favorite, loves to play in-you-jersey defense.
The NBA, particularly after a run like this, could be around the corner for Boatright -- at some point.
If he stays in college for another year as expected, he'll take over Napier's leadership role.
''I'm going to enjoy this as much as I can,'' Boatright said. ''I'm not thinking about the future right now. I'm enjoying the present.''
He should. It's pretty good.
-- John Marshall | The Associated Press
It was quite a journey to get here.
UConn won a national title in 2011 behind do-it-all guard Kemba Walker. One setback after another followed.
Head coach Jim Calhoun retired in 2012. Players left the program, three who transferred away and two who left for the NBA.
The Huskies were barred from the 2013 tournament for failing to meet NCAA academic standards. They scrambled to find a home after the Big East blew up, landing in the American Athletic Conference.
UConn fought its way through last season, winning 20 games despite no hope of playing in the postseason, yet still was dismissed heading into this season.
The Huskies turned a few heads with an opening nine-game winning streak, but were given little chance of making a run after stumbling late in the season.
UConn continued to go against the grain of public opinion as it advanced through the NCAA tournament bracket, beating the odds while knocking off Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State and top-seeded Florida to reach the championship game.
Again, the Huskies were not supposed to win, told they were no match for the length and athleticism of Kentucky's one-and-done freshmen, expected to get run over by those speedy 'Cats.
Again, they wouldn't listen.
Relying on its veteran leaders, UConn jumped to a big early lead, kept its composure whenever Kentucky tried to make a run and counterpunched every time the Wildcats landed a blow.
Senior Shabazz Napier took what he learned from Walker, his mentor, and became the leader who took the Huskies to a title, finishing with 22 points and six rebounds to bookend his career with national championships.
The gritty Boatright gave Kentucky fits at both ends all night, scoring 14 points while teaming with Napier to lock down the Wildcats' heralded twins, Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
Kevin Ollie proved a more-than-able caretaker of the program Calhoun built, creating his own legacy by becoming the first coach to win a national title within two years on his first Division I job since Michigan's Steve Fisher in 1989.
When it was over and the confetti fell, the seventh-seeded Huskies were on top of the college basketball for the fourth time as a program.
UConn is highest seed to win a national title since Rollie Massimino and eighth-seeded Villanova won it in 1985. The Huskies are the first team since Arizona in 1997 to win a national championship without winning a conference regular-season or tournament title.
They also won the national title without playing in the NCAA tournament or NIT the season before, a first since NC State in 1974.
''You've got to continue to believe,'' said Napier, the Final Four's most outstanding player. ''We had faith in each other and we are here. We won the whole thing. We didn't listen to any doubters. We just went out there and did what we had to do.''
UConn's title served as a validation of sorts for Ollie. He was not an entirely popular choice to lead the Huskies when Calhoun stepped down.
Ollie played at UConn and had a 13-year NBA career, but had never been a coach before joining Calhoun's staff as an assistant. After two short years, he was handed the reins to one of college basketball's most storied programs.
The 41-year-old Ollie handled it well, combining Calhoun's old-school methods with his own eternal enthusiasm to urge the Huskies to fight past limitations others placed on them.
By doing so, Ollie not only proved he could fill Calhoun's shoes, he joined an elite group of Georgetown's John Thompson, Arkansas' Nolan Richardson and Kentucky's Tubby Smith as black coaches in Division I to lead teams to a national title.
''I just wanted to come in and do this job and nobody looking at my color, just what I'm doing Xs and Os, but most importantly the impact I'm having on young kids' lives,'' Ollie said. ''I just want to coach. I want to coach at the greatest university. And I have this job and we're national champions.''