ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky had Connecticut right where it wanted in Monday night’s national championship game. Trailing, just like normal -- normal at least in this NCAA tournament.
Except it was a larger deficit than these fabulous freshmen had seen in quite some time. It was the fifth game in a row UK was behind by at least nine points. But there was a difference on this night. It wasn’t the same nine the Wildcats had seen on Saturday against Wisconsin. It was six more. And this time, those six points were the difference in a 60-54 loss to the Huskies.“Somebody said, ‘Well, why do you think you started that way?’ They're all freshmen,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “They're scared to death again. We tried to settle them down and we were rattled early. Then we settled down and started playing.”
Calipari’s team didn’t go down without swinging. There wasn’t a soul in the championship game-record crowd of 79,238 at AT&T Stadium that didn’t think the inevitable was coming. You know, another Wildcats comeback. They didn’t hold a halftime lead for the fifth game in a row -- that 15-point UConn lead with 5:59 remaining in the first half was cut to four at the break.
“I hate to tell you this is what we have done the whole tournament, but we made some shots, the other team missed some shots and we ended up winning those games,” Calipari said. “This was a similar game.”
The Wildcats were able to choke a UConn offense that was off to a good start against Kentucky’s standard man-to-man defense. Calipari switched to the zone, something that is unheard of in Big Blue Nation. UK had played a zone defense in just 5 percent of its defensive possessions this season.
“We had to play zone,” Calipari said. “We tried to get their sweat to dry a little bit, make them less aggressive and it worked and these guys performed. The only thing that slowed them down was us going into a zone. And you know me well enough, I don't usually do that. I said we’ve got no choice or we're going to be down 20.”
Kentucky didn’t hold a lead all night, but it climbed and climbed cutting that 15-point lead to a single point just 12 seconds into the second half on a 3-pointer by Aaron Harrison and then again with 15:29 left on a layup by the same Harrison twin.
But somehow on this night in the state of Texas -- a place so kind to UConn -- the 21st century version of the Fab Five couldn’t get over the hump. These comeback Cats were the first team to start five freshmen in a national title game since Michigan’s original Fab Five in 1992.
What could’ve been. The largest deficit overcome in a national championship game was that number -- 15. That was back in 1963 by Loyola-Chicago against Cincinnati. If there was ever a group that could do it, why not these comeback Cats? They were the first team to knock out the reigning national champions -- Louisville -- and reigning runner-up -- Michigan -- in the same tournament. There was a No. 1 seed in this run, too -- Wichita State.
“This group of guys are special,” Kentucky’s Julius Randle said. “We have been through a lot this season. How we kept fighting and we were able to make this run just says a lot about the guys. I just hate that it ended like this.”
The script for a championship comeback was there. Kentucky’s starters didn’t have a personal foul in the first half. They hadn’t been playing their normal game -- attack the paint -- the way they had so effortlessly at times against Michigan and Wisconsin. In those games, they did nearly 75 percent of the time. Monday night saw UK do it nearly 25 percent less.
Even when they did attack the rim and get to the free-throw line that problem with some of those Kentucky teams of old cropped up at the worst possible time: missed free throws. UK went 13 of 24 at the line.
That’s the thing when you have so many freshmen playing. Some decisions make you scratch your head. One possession they can look so good, like when James Young posterized UConn’s Amida Brimah on a dunk and then hit a free throw with 10:40 left.
They can get to the rim with such ease and finish with such thunderous athleticism, it makes you wonder why they don’t try on every possession.
They did try. And try. Young’s two free throws off an offensive rebound with 8:13 left got Kentucky back to within one point. At the next timeout, the Kentucky mascot got on top of the cheerleaders’ pyramid, just like he had when UK trailed against Wisconsin in the second half.
Big Blue Nation rose to their feet. Surely, this would be when the young Cats would finally get over the hump. Aaron Harrison’s 3-point shot after a Shabazz Napier turnover rimmed out.
That’s as close as Kentucky would come.
“These kids aren't machines, they're not robots, they're not computers,” Calipari said. “I’ll 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.”
Unlike the other stops on this magical ride for the eighth-seeded Wildcats, there was no late chance for the Harrison twins to shine. UConn made sure a long 3-pointer couldn’t beat them on this night.
Fifteen. Just six points more than the new Fab Five could handle.