ARLINGTON, Texas –They weren’t supposed to bang with the big boys. The Connecticut Huskies couldn’t hang with the husky Kentucky bodies looming beneath the basket.
After all, this was the Kentucky team that, over the course of a roller-coaster season, still managed to average almost 10 rebounds per game than its opponents (40.4 to 30.7). The Wildcats were supposed to have a size and strength that the Huskies couldn’t match.
UConn overcame Kentucky’s size with scrap in its 60-54 championship-game victory, despite foul problems that threatened the Huskies throughout much of the second half. And the victory was largely due to the battle being waged near the basket.When the buzzer sounded to start Connecticut’s fourth national championship celebration, the Huskies only trailed the Wildcats by a single rebound 34-33. They had more points in the paint, 24-20. And as it goes this postseason, the script we thought we knew was flipped.
It started with freshman center Amida Brimah. He wouldn’t score any points in that first half, but his presence was felt. Mere seconds after he entered the game, he sent back an Alex Poythress shot, leading to a fast-break basket from Lasan Kromah. And by the end of the half, he led his team with three rebounds alongside Ryan Boatright.
But that battle underneath was fought with more resourcefulness than strength. The Huskies couldn’t out-lift, out-jump Kentucky, but they could outhustle them. They could tip loose balls bouncing off the rim. They could get the 50/50 balls. They could box out.
“Every 50/50 ball they got,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “They just had more energy.”
Because of that energy, the Huskies were able to turn the boards into a 50/50 proposition. Not because their forwards secured every loose ball, but because they put those loose balls up for grabs. Not only did Boatright get three rebounds in that first 20 minutes, but Napier and Kromah each tallied two.
When they’d finally emerge from the scrum, fast breaks or second chances followed. In both areas, UConn was coming out ahead.
When the buzzer sounded, something was clear: this was an underdog story. It was a reversed script. Arlington was Hollywood, this game its script.
And like any Hollywood story, there were twists and turns.
There was the second half’s ominous start, a string of blocks in which the Wildcats reasserted the paint as their own. Dakari Johnson sent a Phillip Nolan shot backwards before Brimah suffered two consecutive rejections at the hands of Johnson and Randle.
“Phil could have had 12 points if he didn’t get blocked all the time,” Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier said of Nolan, his scoreless teammate.
There was the foul trouble, with Brimah’s fourth coming with 10:40 to go and Nolan’s fourth called with 8:13 to play. There was too much time to play, too much time for the Wildcats to manufacture another dramatic tournament victory. Brimah and Nolan had to leave the game.
And there was that storyline that drove them to write their own.
“People doubted us,” Brimah said as confetti still fell in swaths. “They doubted us. Now, people can’t doubt us. You saw what happened.”
They just discovered that one muscle, even at the conclusion of March Madness, can still overcome biceps, might and height.
“Heart and effort,” Nolan said, trying to find the words for how this team matched Kentucky rebound-for-rebound.
The man who had to step up when the other big men sat down with foul trouble put it in more tangible terms. “Throughout the season, [Kentucky] got 43 percent of the missed shots,” Niels Giffey said in the locker room. “Every missed shot is an opportunity for them. Those were the things we had to focus on.”
To Brimah, that focus took away Kentucky’s only chance. “We were making sure we boxed them out the whole time,” he said. “Beating them to the ball. That’s it. We made sure they didn’t do what they had to do to win.”
But to see Connecticut under the confetti is to see a team that didn’t win because of a game plan. Not when the chorus of “Nobody believed in us” and “We shocked the world” is louder than the chords of “One Shining Moment” playing over the speakers.
Giffey said it simplest: “I think we wanted it more.”
That want-to led to a box score no one predicted. Despite the prowess of the Kentucky front line, Randle, Johnson, Poythress, and Young missed 18 shots between them.
But the numbers don’t sell the script.
It’s the underdog story. “We played with a chip on our shoulder,” Giffey explained.
It’s the unlikely heroes that rose up underneath when others fell. “We had guys in foul trouble,” DeAndre Daniels said, “and we had guys come in and step up and do the little things and boxing out and then rebounding.”
It’s the fact that when the only thing certain in this tournament was Harrison from deep with the game on the line, in that same spot on the floor, he missed it.
And Connecticut got the rebound. And Connecticut won. And the confetti fell.
They weren’t supposed to bang with the big boys. So they didn’t. They just beat them.