The UConn Huskies grabbed the first lead of the NCAA Tournament’s championship game and never let it go, taking down the 8th-seeded Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 to capture the program’s fourth national title since 1999. Led by star guard Shabazz Napier, who paced the Huskies with 22 points in the game, UConn became the first 7-seed to cut down the nets. Here is a quick report card on the final game of the 2013-14 season:
UConn: This was The Shabazz Show from the very beginning, with a strong assist from his speedy backcourt mate, junior Ryan Boatright. The Huskies’ plan from the outset was to use their quickness in the backcourt to frustrate Kentucky, which had to get out of a man-to-man defensive look where it switched all ball screens in part because of the perimeter mismatches involving the two UConn guards, and it worked in the end.
Napier finished with 22 points (8-of-16 shooting), grabbed six rebounds and dished out three assists. Boatright added 14 points and three assists. As a team, the Huskies struggled to get anything going on the interior against the Wildcats’ NBA-caliber size and athleticism, but they grabbed eight offensive boards and hit all 10 of their free throws — a number Kentucky coach John Calipari referenced in the aftermath as the reason his team did not make UConn earn it at the free throw line down the stretch. Every time they needed a big play, Napier was there. Grade: B
Kentucky: Kentucky will look back on this game and see the charity stripe as a primary reason for the final deficit (13-of-24 on free throws), but in the long run, Kentucky could never put enough consecutive quality offensive possessions together to erase an early 15-point deficit. The free throws did not help matters, but UConn did a good job of partially erasing the Wildcats’ dangerous size — holding big men Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress to just 19 points on the night.
Neither team shot particularly well in this one (at times it resembled UConn’s 2011 championship victory against Butler, not accounting for all the next-level talent on the floor), but Kentucky all too often looked disjointed when given the opportunity to pull ahead. Guard James Young provided the highlight of the night and paced the ‘Cats with 20 points and seven rebounds, but his backcourt mates Andrew and Aaron Harrison never really found their rhythm. Grade: B-
UConn: It should come as no surprise that UConn’s defense showed up in a title game, but watching how frustrated the Huskies made the Wildcats look at times was quite surprising. Coach Kevin Ollie’s squad ranks 10th in defensive efficiency nationally, and it showed, especially when Boatright, the team’s defensive spark on Monday, was on the floor.
Boatright was a menace on the ball for the bigger Kentucky guards, logging three steals and helping to rush their possessions. When he went off with foul trouble late in the first half, Kentucky made its run and erased the big early deficit. With Boatright on the floor, that type of run was never replicated. Forward DeAndre Daniels also deserves mention for Kentucky’s rather quiet night in the paint. Kentucky scored just 0.9 points per possession. This was a title won on the defensive end. Grade: A
Kentucky: For the 41st-ranked team in defensive efficiency, giving up around 96.9 points per 100 possessions this season, Kentucky held its own in this defensive battle. The fact that sheer size helped out so much in that department should not come across as too shocking — the Wildcats came up with key defensive stops in their dramatic tourney wins over Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin — and if they could have found some consistency on the offensive end this could have been a very different story.
The Wildcats were never much of a turnover-forcing machine this season, but they blocked five shots, forced 10 turnovers and largely forced difficult shots all night. The problem was that Napier and Boatright kept hitting them. Grade: B-
UConn: Ollie rarely turned to his bench for too much help this season, but he did get some decent minutes out of Lasan Kromah and Terrence Samuel. Backup center and 7-footer Amida Brimah will largely be remembered here for being put on James Young’s poster, but he provided his coach with another big body (and fouls) to help contend with Kentucky’s overflow of athleticism in the paint. Overall, those three combined for 44 minutes, six points and 11 rebounds in the six-point win. Grade: C+
Kentucky: Calipari used his bench even less than Ollie did this season, and with center Willie Cauley-Stein out for the game — and wearing a spectacular long-sleeve shirt under his jersey, no less — he dipped into it even less in the title game. Poythress was not a game-changer, but he made some good plays on both ends of the floor and was on the wrong end of some misfortune, including a bogus second-half charge call in a big spot that scratched out not only a Kentucky possession but a potential three-point play.
As good as Marcus Lee was against Michigan, he and Dominique Hawkins combined for just 15 minutes and made very little difference in the final outcome. This was a game largely won and lost by the starting fives. Grade: C+
UConn: What an incredible run for Ollie & Co. As the 7-seed suggests, the Huskies were not considered a viable title contender heading into this tournament, and after surviving overtime in the opener against Saint Joseph’s, the second-year head coach seemed to get his team to buy in more and more as the event progressed. UConn jumped out of the gate as the aggressor on Monday, and Ollie’s decision to put the ball in Napier’s hands and rely on his backcourt’s speed and quickness to gain the upper hand worked like a charm.
Defensively, the Huskies did not give an inch, and they played the driving lanes of the Harrison twins and Randle very, very well, collapsing at just the right time to force off-balance kick-out or turnovers. Ollie’s team looked well-prepared to counter Kentucky’s advantages. And when you win the national title in what was largely a one- or two-possession game for the final 25 minutes, what more can you ask for?Grade: A-
Kentucky: Calipari takes the loss, but there were redeeming qualities to his coaching efforts with his five freshman starters (and Poythress, a sophomore) on the biggest stage of their lives. As he’s done time after time in this tournament, Coach Cal was able to make in-game tweaks to counter a significant early deficit, getting his team back into the game.
Part of that success stems from talent simply taking over, but throughout this postseason he’s done a commendable job of putting that talent in spots to succeed. One of the biggest first-half adjustments he made — right when Napier and Boatright were on a roll — was switching to that zone in an attempt to stop getting guys like Randle matched up at the top of the arc with a guard. For the most part it worked. All told, this was still one of the most impressive and entertaining tourney runs in recent memory. A few breaks here and there, and perhaps Calipari’s guys are cutting down the nets. Grade: B+