ARLINGTON, Texas - The story, for all its magic, for all its improbability, just seemed so perfect.
On a run for the ages, with dramatic, implausible victories with youth not seen since the Fab Five, the only thing left in a storybook season was the last chapter.
But Kentucky, sticking to a carbon-copy script that got it to the NCAA Tournament finals, finally got burned by it. The Wildcats (29-11) fell behind by double digits before making its patented late first-half charge, but UK could never fully get over the hump, falling 60-54 to Connecticut in the national championship game in AT&T Stadium.
"Even in that loss, I can't believe what these guys got done together," John Calipari said. "Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting."
The fight just came up one game short, ending but not tarnishing an unforgettable run.
Kentucky started the season atop the polls with 40-0 dreams, appeared to crumble with youth during the regular season under the pressure and expectations of the hype, and then turned everything around in the postseason with a run to the finals as the No. 8 seed.
The Wildcats couldn't finish it off, meaning Villanova is still the highest seed to ever win the tournament, but the run will hardly be forgotten.
"The stuff we fought through, the scrutiny we took, it's amazing," Andrew Harrison said. "This one definitely hurt us but there's a bigger picture than that."
The big picture, the Wildcats said in a somber but not overly dejected locker room, is that this is a team that came back from the dead when the coffin was already buried beneath six feet of dirt.
"This group of guys are special," said Julius Randle, who came up just a game short of winning a national championship in his hometown. "We have been through a lot this season. How we kept fighting and (how) we were able to make this run just says a lot about the guys. I just hate that it ended like this."
After all the comebacks they made to get to Monday night, it seemed like the season wouldn't end how it did. The Wildcats, in rallying back from deficits of nine, 13, 10 and nine in the previous four tournament games, had made the unthinkable believable with late-game charges and iconic Aaron Harrison shots.
With all that had happened, even when UK fell behind early, it just felt like Kentucky was going to make its charge and pull one more out of the hat.
"I thought we were going to win the game," Calipari said.
Kentucky, finally, just couldn't get over the hump.
"The run was fun and everything but it was a big letdown," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who missed his third straight game with a left ankle injury. "The steps we took to get here and how we won the last three games, you feel like you're going to win this one because you don't win three games in a row the way you did and come up short. That's really heartbreaking because you feel like some crazy faith is going to happen and you end up winning the game even though you played like you did. You feel like you came up short on something."
James Young dunks in traffic for two of his 20 points against UConn (Chet White/UK Athletics)
The Cats, as they've done throughout the tournament, dug themselves a hole in the first half. After turning it over just four times in the win against Wisconsin, UK struggled to hang on to the ball against UConn's pesky guards and failed to hammer the opponent on the glass like it had done all year long.
"You're playing in the national championship game. You're a freshman. It's tough," Andrew Harrison said of UK's seven first-half turnovers. "But at the same time they played great defense."
Hardest to overcome of all was an apparent less-than-100 percent Julius Randle, who grimaced in pregame warm-ups and struggled to assert himself early. TBS reported during its national broadcast that Randle was dealing with cramps, which plagued the freshman forward early in the 2013-14 campaign, but Randle dismissed the report.
"I was fine," Randle said.
Coach Cal said he was tired.
"He's a freshman and he's anxious," Calipari said. "That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people and he ran up and down the court three times and he got winded. It's normal."
Randle came alive late in the first half and Coach Cal went to a zone, briefly slowing down Shabazz Napier and Co. and slicing what was once a 30-15 deficit to 35-31 at halftime.
"The only thing that slowed them down is us going zone," Calipari said. "And you know me well enough, I don't usually do that. I said we got no choice or we're going to be down 20. We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance."
The Cats closed within one on three different occasions, evoking memories of Kentucky's memorable surges in the last couple of weeks, but they could never take the lead.
Connecticut pulled away by nine midway through the second half, UK rallied back to within one again on a James Young surge, but after Aaron Harrison, who provided three game-winners in the previous three games, missed a 3 to take the lead, Napier (22 points) hit a 3-pointer to start the championship closing.
"All those shots (I hit) don't really matter anymore," Aaron Harrison said.
Calipari suggested that was nonsense.
"You think I'm mad at that guy (Aaron Harrison) that missed that 3? Not at all," Calipari said. "They kid made shots this whole run. Missed one. Hey, it happens."
UK hung around just a little bit longer, but when Ryan Boatright hit a step-back jumper with 4:13 left, Kentucky cracked.
"Boatright's big shot, huge shot," Coach Cal said. "Like, they're dying and he makes like a step-back and we miss an open shot, a couple free throws. We're not going to win then."
If there was any hope, DeAndre Daniels squashed it on a second-chance layup with 2:47 left. That put the Cats down six.
"I needed to do a better job for these kids today because they needed more help in this," Calipari said. "... You're talking all freshmen out there. They needed more from me. I wish I had a couple more answers to create something easier for them."
Calipari said he elected not to foul at the end and stretch the game out because of Connecticut's success at the line. The Huskies, one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country, made all 10 of its attempts Saturday.
Meanwhile, UK missed 11 of its 24 attempts.
"We were waiting for that something to happen and it was them this time, it was UConn that made the biggest shots to win the game," Jarrod Polson said. "That's just the way things go sometimes. You can't really do anything about it."
Said Calipari: "This was as much (about) them, how they played. They were not going to let us take this game from them."
The Huskies didn't allow Kentucky to finish off its storybook ending, but they couldn't take away the memories.
"It's been the best experience of my life," Andrew Harrison said.
To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.
John Calipari will coach in his second national title game in three years on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- One win.
That's all that separates the Kentucky Wildcats from their ninth national championship, and surely the most improbable of the bunch.
To reach the national championship game, UK has survived a veritable murderer's row. Starting with Wichita State and going through Wisconsin, the Cats have taken down three Final Four teams from a season ago and four top-11 teams, according to kenpom.com.
Every one of those games has been an offensive slugfest, with UK using sound execution to advance. Perhaps the most incredible thing about the run -- other than Aaron Harrison's repeated clutch displays -- has been the Cats' ability to withstand efficient offensive days by opponent after opponent. UK has allowed 1.1 points per possession in four straight games, but stayed alive by scoring at least 1.18 points per possession.
A look at the numbers using kenpom.com's advanced stats shows recent history is unlikely to repeat itself against UConn.
When Kentucky is on offense
UK has climbed all the way up to sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency during the tournament, but the Cats are in for a test against a Connecticut team that's been similarly good on defense.
The Huskies rank 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and boast impressive defensive outings against top-25 offenses Villanova, Michigan State and Florida in the tournament. UConn held all three to 0.93 points per possession or fewer to set up a rematch of the 2011 national semifinal.
UConn is a rare team that both forces turnovers at a high rate (86th nationally) and is effective avoiding fouls (71st in defensive free-throw rate). That starts with ball pressure in the backcourt from Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. The two small guards each average at least 1.5 steals per game.
That will be a test for the Harrison twins, especially Andrew. UK's point guard is playing his best basketball of the season, but he is still averaging four turnovers per game in the NCAA Tournament. Decision-making, suffice it to say, will be at a premium.
UK (143rd in effective field-goal percentage) also faces a tough matchup against UConn's first-shot defense. The Huskies rank 15th nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense largely on the strength of a front line that is the longest UK has faced this postseason. UConn ranks 12th nationally in block percentage and eighth in 2-point field-goal percentage defense.
But even if the Cats aren't hitting shots as they have the last two weeks, all hope is not lost. UK -- the second-best offensive rebounding team in the country according to kenpom.com -- will take on a UConn team ranking 247th in defensive rebounding percentage. Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee could have a field day on the offensive glass.
When Kentucky is on defense
This is another even matchup, with UK ranking 44th in defensive efficiency and UConn 37th in offensive efficiency.
The Huskies' strength is their shooting, from outside specifically. UConn is 81st nationally in effective field-goal percentage and 22nd in 3-point shooting at 38.9 percent. Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey all shoot better than 40 percent from 3, and Daniels and Giffey figure to pose a unique matchup challenge. Often on the floor together, the two forwards are 6-foot-9 and 6-7, respectively, meaning UK's bigs will need to play close attention.
UConn is slightly above average in the turnover department (turnover rate of 17.3 percent) and below average in offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line. For UK to have success on defense, rebounding and playing without fouling will be paramount.
That's especially true given UConn's free-throw shooting. The Huskies are fourth nationally in foul shooting at 77.4 percent on the season and 86.7 percent in the tournament.
UK's tournament games thus far have all featured 64 or fewer possessions. Don't expect that to change on Monday night at 9:10 p.m. ET. The Huskies are 260th nationally in adjusted tempo and perfectly happy grinding it out and allowing Napier to make plays.
More of a defensive battle than we've seen of late is likely in the offing as well. UConn excels in taking opponents out of their game, primarily with ball pressure. Over the last two games, opposing point guards Keith Appling of Michigan State and Scottie Wilbekin of Florida have combined for six points on 3-of-12 shooting, three assists and seven turnovers.
Given the problems UConn poses on the perimeter on both ends of the floor, you'll likely be talking about rebounding if UK cuts down the nets. The Cats have a significant on-paper edge on both ends of the floor in this area with their athleticism, strength and length.
To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches
will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great
stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and
UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than
UK is one win away from its ninth national championship with Connecticut standing in the way on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com
To fully appreciate the magnitude of what the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team has accomplished during its magical run to the NCAA title game, one has to understand the entirety of the story, for it's a multi-layered saga with nonstop drama.
"I've never witnessed a season like this," legendary former UK coach Joe B. Hall said. "It redefines what it means to cause the fan base to have such euphoria. This has been unreal."
The euphoria that Wildcats fans are feeling at the moment comes not only from the Cats' 12th appearance in the national championship game, but also from how decidedly unexpected the team's incredible tourney run is, especially considering that between Feb. 15 and March 8, Kentucky lost four of seven games in uninspiring fashion.
So bleak were the prospects of UK making noise in any postseason tournament that the Wildcat faithful had to look toward the heavens to see a snail's belly after a 72-67 road loss at lowly South Carolina on March 1, merely 10 games ago.
"People lose hope (when the Cats struggle so mightily); it effects everything they do in their lives," Hall said about the rabid UK fan base. "They're hurt, they're downtrodden and depressed. They enter the depths of depression when the team doesn't play well."
Not playing well is a kind characterization of how most Cat fans felt about how poor UK's late-season efforts were. Included in the four losses in seven games were back-to-back losses to unranked Arkansas in Rupp Arena, followed by the South Carolina loss then an 84-65 spanking at the hands of mighty Florida.
The Commonwealth was so down on this team, all aspects of how the program is run were brought into question by disappointed fans. Before, questioning the direction of the program was a laughable thought.
"There was a lot of talk that people don't like Coach Cal, they don't like the one-and-dones, he needs to get four-year players, etc.," former UK great Winston Bennett said.
Without a doubt, the Cats were scuffling.
Then came "The Tweak." After being crushed in the regular-season finale in Gainesville, Fla., John Calipari altered something -- perhaps the way he coaches his players, perhaps the way the team plays defense, perhaps in the way he handles the Harrisons. Theories on the makeup of the tweak are all guess work because Cal has been unsurprisingly coy as to exactly what the tweak entails.
Whatever the alteration might have been, Kentucky basketball history was waiting to be made, because the team was poised to make the singular leap from confounding to champions, in record-setting time.
"And then all of the sudden (for the team) to come to life?" Hall said, happily exasperated. "It's like the prodigal son returning home. It just lit up the world."
Reversal of fortune
Being saddled with an eight seed coming into the NCAA tourney, and with a bracket of top-10 teams awaiting the nation's youngest college basketball squad, Kentucky fans were left mostly to hope. Hope that the Wildcats they saw nearly upset the country's No. 1 team in the SEC title tilt, had enough left in them to make a run in the only tournament that really matters.
Hope quickly morphed into unbridled elation, as the Cats mowed down, one after the other, more experienced and highly ranked teams on their way to a Final Four for the ages.
"To come from where they came in the month of February is just amazing," UK analyst Mike Pratt said. "That's all I can tell you ... amazing."
It's not just that Kentucky has made it to the championship game of the NCAA tourney which has UK fans walking on air, it's the manner in which the team has executed a turnaround never before seen in the rich tradition and lore of Wildcats basketball:·
Beating the undefeated, top-seeded Wichita State Shockers in the round of 32 after being down 66-62 with 5:50 remaining. James Young's 3-point bulls-eye with 1:40 left in the contest helped seal the victory.
In the Sweet 16, beating the defending national champions, the Louisville Cardinals, after being down 66-59 with 4:33 remaining, giving UK fans their first glimpse of what clutch is all about, as Aaron Harrison absolutely owned a trey with 1:39 left, giving the Cats a 70-68 lead they would not relinquish.
Then came Aaron Harrison again, this time in the Elite Eight against second-seeded Michigan, as he rose up and tickled the twine with yet another 3-pointer, giving UK the lead with 2.6 seconds left on the clock and sending the Cats to Final Four for the third time in four years.
Beating No. 12 Wisconsin after being down 67-62 with 6:17 left in the game. The Badgers were seemingly in control of the contest until a late push by the Cats brought hope out of the closet. It was Kentucky's newest hardwood hero, Aaron Harrison, who elevated from 24 feet away and bottomed out a 3 with 5.7 ticks left on the clock, propelling Kentucky to the national title game and sending UK fans into a frenzy.
"I have not seen anything like this, and I think they've redefined the word iconic," Bennett said about this squad. "It's so amazing, I don't have words for it. Here they are in the championship, and your mind is just completely blown."
No Kentucky team has beat four consecutive top-12 teams to get to the title game. No Kentucky player has made game-winning shots in three straight NCAA Tournament games.
Take note Kentucky fans, because we are witnessing history. The kind of history passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. This team has defied more than the odds because late in the season, common sense dictated little hope be harbored for a meaningful postseason. The history of the thing, though, is in the Cats' response to the experts' (and many fans') dire forecast of failure.
"The ride through the tournament, against the odds, and against the teams we had to go through to get to the Final Four, and to get to the final game is just phenomenal," Hall gushed. "It's the toughest road Kentucky has ever had in getting to the final game.
Simply stated, the resiliency of this team is remarkable. The fans' and sports writers' ubiquitous derision of the club throughout the regular season did not deter this team; it did not cause hope to be lost in the locker room. The Cats were able to put the past just where it belongs -- in the past -- and then concentrate all of their considerable efforts on proving that they are indeed champions.
"You have to give a lot of credit to these players because they listened to Cal," Bennett said. "Now look, you're playing on the night where you will hopefully get the ultimate prize. And even if they don't, and I hope and pray that they do, but (if they lose) that should not tarnish at all the legacy of redefining an iconic brand."
For all the rightful talk of team, though, it's one player who rose above all others and crowned himself Mr. Clutch during this historic UK streak of excellence.
"Aaron Harrison is an example of a true winner," Hall said flatly about Kentucky's coolest customer. "A player who can take advantage of those situations, they have a sixth sense to be able to create such focus and confidence to execute to perfection when under pressure. And that's what a winner is; a winner wants that shot and has all the confidence in the world in taking it."
It's the entire team that deserves tremendous credit for displaying a mighty will to win, a willingness to be coached, and the talent to execute greatness. But some think Calipari needs a back pat, as well.
"Anybody who has any doubts about the greatness of this coach needs to be put away," Bennett said. "I mean seriously, if you had any doubts before now, he and this team should have eradicated and erased every doubt in your mind that he is one of the best coaches in the nation."
Ten or 15 years from now, when we look back at the 2014 season, one word will come to mind: special.
"They led us into the deepest depression this community ever saw, and then resurrected us out of the doldrums, and took us to the heights ... a turnaround like this has never been seen," Hall said about this team.
It's not every day a Kentucky team rises from the ashes and lights the Big Blue Nation on fire with an NCAA tourney run filled with unexpected victory after unexpected victory. It's awe inspiring. It's the new watershed.
"The way they turned this whole season around in a week's time prior to the SEC Tournament should be their legacy," Pratt contends. "What made them connect like they are connected now. Their sacrifice to be able to make that connection. ... It would have been easy for them to just write it off, and say, 'We'll just do what we have to do, it's been a bad year.' But they were able to connect, and as Coach (Adolph) Rupp used to say, bow their necks and make a statement. And they certainly have. You have to give them all the credit in the world. It's been amazing."
The legendary perseverance displayed by these young players is what will stick in some people's minds as being the key component to this group spinning a lost season on its head.
"You can be in your darkest moment, and ready to give up, but as long as you continue to strive and keep doing the best you can, things have an awesome chance of turning around," Bennett said. "This team has proven that. I'm so excited about this team, I don't know what to do because it's so unbelievable what they've done."
To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.
UK advanced to the national championship game against UConn with a win on Saturday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Connecticut hasn't experienced quite the serendipitous turnaround that Kentucky has in reaching the title game, but the Huskies were actually bigger underdogs to make the title game than the Cats.
Statistician Nate Silver, who runs the highly popular FiveThirtyEight blog on ESPN, only gave UConn a 2.0 percent chance to reach the finals when the brackets were unveiled. UK only had a 3.9 percent chance of making the title game.
UConn was seeded one line ahead of the Cats with a No. 7 seed, but the Huskies weren't given much of a chance after their recent performances against Louisville. The Huskies were slaughtered by 33 points in the Derby City on March 8 before losing by 10 points in the American Athletic Conference Tournament finals.
All told, UConn lost three games to U of L by a combined 55 points.
"I'm glad that happened because we went back and I had to evaluate myself as a coach, and I hope every player went to their dorms and looked themselves in the mirror and had to evaluate their effort," UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. "Down times like that just promote you. So I'm glad it happened, because we all got together, we knew what we had to do, the challenge that was in front of us and we were going to face it. We got better from that."
Since the 33-point drubbing at U of L, UConn has won seven of eight games.
Shabazz Napier has continued to play like a first-team All-American, but the difference in the late-season surge has been forward DeAndre Daniels, whom UK recruited out of high school. Daniels is averaging 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds since that loss at Louisville.
"We bounced back from that loss and everybody was tuned in, everybody was focused and determined," Daniels said. "We made it to the finals in the conference tournament and lost to Louisville again, but we made a bigger step and we played a lot better."
Improved play aside for both teams, Monday's meeting is still historic. It's the highest combined seeds in the national championship since the tournament started seeding teams in 1978.
"I don't think we were an eight seed and I don't think Connecticut was a seven seed," Calipari said.
Only one No. 8 seed has ever won the tournament (Villanova in 1985) and a No. 7 seed has never done it.
Cauley-Stein out for championship
There will be no mystery about Willie Cauley-Stein's status for the third straight game. The sophomore forward, who injured his left ankle during the Louisville game, will be in street clothes with a jersey over top for the national championship game.
Cauley-Stein's status has improved, as he's ditched the boot and crutches of a week ago for a camera he's been using on the sidelines, but the chance to shoot some behind-the-scenes footage and join his teammates in the celebratory dog piles of the last two games doesn't fill the void of not being able to play.
"I feel like a bystander, like a person just watching because I'm not playing," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein has tried to stay positive through the injury as his teammates have tried to lift his spirits up, but he was clearly disappointed on Sunday knowing he won't be able to play in the national championship game after all the time he's put in the last two seasons.
"The only thing I can really do is encourage the team and stay positive even though I can't play," Cauley-Stein said. "I still serve a purpose uplifting people and just staying in people's ears or cheering."
Alex Poythress nearly joined his roommate on the injured list after hurting his leg during Saturday's postgame pile-up. Poythress left the celebration with a noticeable limp but confirmed on Sunday that he's fine and will play on Monday. Stay in school
With Kentucky in the Final Four, the one-and-done subject has been a hot topic of debate and continued Monday morning with NCAA President Mark Emmert's press conference.
Julius Randle, who figures to be a top-five draft pick if he chooses to leave after this season, was asked Sunday if he would have gone pro out of high school if he would have had the option. His answer might surprise you.
"I probably still would have chosen to go to college," Randle said. "It is what I needed as far as maturity level. A lot of people think they are ready, but in actuality you are really not. I am really happy that I chose to go to college and get that experience of being away from home. This year has been wonderful for me as far as maturity level and kind of growing me into a young man. I am extremely happy, whether they had the rule or not, that I chose to come to college."
Alex Poythress drew a huge smooch on his cheek from Calipari after a play in the second half of the Wisconsin game.
"I kiss them all the time," Calipari said. "I don't kiss them on the lips, but I--"
When Coach Cal thought he heard someone say "ewwww" in the media, he pointed out that all his kids are like family to him.
"They don't need me to be a father figure," Coach Cal said. "They need me in another way, and that's who I am for them. I can't be more proud of all of these guys."
Impressing a Hall of Famer
Wisconsin, as strong as the Badgers were defensively, didn't turn over a lot of opponents during the season, ranking near the nation's worst in turnover percentage.
Having said that, for the Cats to turn the ball over just four times Saturday night, especially when possessions were at a premium against a highly efficient offense, was an impressive feat to legend and former Georgetown coach John Thompson.
"Coach Thompson said to me after the game, Hall of Famer, 'How in the world did your young kids play that offense, defend that offense? How did you have young kids do that?' " Calipari said. "They dialed in. They dialed in. We broke down a few times, (but) the reality of it is they do have a competitive spirit."
The student becomes the teacher
Though Monday will mark the first meeting of Calipari and Ollie as head coaches, it's not the first time their paths will have crossed.
Coach Cal was actually an assistant on the Philadelphia 76ers when Ollie was a player in 2000.
"You know what he was doing while he was playing: He was coaching," Calipari said. "That's how he played. He was an unbelievable student of the game then. He was teaching me when I was in Philly."
Pomeroy streak ends
Barring a historic offensive performance by UConn or a UK shutout, Ken Pomeroy's streak of projecting the national champion will come to an end Monday.
Since Pomeroy began rating teams with his very reliable formula in 2002-03, no team has ever won the national title without being in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Kentucky falls outside the criteria on the defensive side of the ball, where the Cats rank No. 44 in defensive efficiency, while UConn sits outside the offensive criteria at No. 37.