NCAA final among unlikeliest
ARLINGTON, Tex.—Connecticut and Kentucky couldn’t have met in last year’s championship game—and few people gave them a chance to be in this year’s.
Seventh-seeded Connecticut and eighth-seeded Kentucky meet tonight in one of the unlikeliest NCAA championship games ever.
And neither looked like national title contenders at times this season.
Kentucky (29-10) and its outstanding freshmen went from pre-season No. 1 to out of the rankings after some bad losses.
Connecticut (31-8), meanwhile, was not a popular post-season pick after finishing tied for third in the American Athletic Conference with multiple losses to Louisville and SMU.
But in the tournament, the Huskies have stopped some of the country’s top guards and put themselves in position for their fourth national championship—the previous three under Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.
“Hopefully we have an opportunity to fall back on our defence,” said second-year coach Kevin Ollie.
“We have been doing that the whole year.”
If Kentucky has a chance to win in the final minute, that defence better pay attention to guard Aaron Harrison—one of five freshmen starters who has hit huge three-pointers in the Wildcats’ last three games.
Harrison rattled in a 26-footer with 5.7 seconds to go in the 74-73 win over Wisconsin in the semi-finals Saturday.
He made almost the exact same shot with 2.3 seconds left against Michigan for a 75-72 win that sent the Wildcats to the Final Four.
Against Louisville, he hit a ‘three’ with 39 seconds left to give Kentucky the lead for good in a 74-69 victory.
“The biggest thing is he’s not afraid to miss,” said Wildcats’ coach John Calipari.
“He’s OK with it. He’s comfortable in his own skin. . . .
“If you’re going to make those kind of shots, you absolutely cannot be afraid to miss them.”
These two programs have combined to win six of the last 18 NCAA titles.
“Playing against Connecticut, I mean, I’m just happy we’re still playing,” Calipari remarked.
Neither program could say that last year.
Connecticut was banned from the post-season after failing to meet NCAA academic standard.
It had practice limitations and lost a scholarship. The players could have transferred but didn’t.
The Huskies finished 20-10 in Ollie’s first year. They took the hit and made it back to the biggest stage.
“It’s actually very impressive,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said yesterday. “To see that team hold together.
“I think it’s a commitment to those young men on that team that hung together.”
Kentucky, meantime, is playing its best basketball lately—led by big man Julius Randle and the Harrison twins.
“We just had too much talent and we saw in spurts how good we could be,” Randle noted.
“So it just felt like it was a matter of time before it clicked.”
This is Calipari’s fourth Final Four but the first two—Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008—were vacated over NCAA rules violations.
Now the Wildcats are on an 11-game winning streak in the NCAA tournament and they are one win from a ninth national championship for Kentucky.
“We all play the game of basketball to compete against the best,” said All-American Shabazz Napier.
“This is one of them games. . . .
“They worked hard to get to this point and we did, too,” he added.
“We’re going to do our best to get this ‘W.’”