UConn Steals Kentucky's Storybook Ending
April 07, 2014
By Eric Lindsey, CoachCal.com
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 right 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."
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.