The University of Connecticut, a basketball program left behind in conference realignment and ineligible for the NCAA Tournament just one year ago due to academic sanctions, won its fourth and most improbable national title on Monday, beating Kentucky 60-54 at AT&T Stadium.
Getting a clutch performance from senior guard Shabazz Napier and a lot of help from the Wildcats at the free-throw line, the Huskies were left standing at the end of a physical, ugly game and secured a number of historic markers, including become the first No. 7 seed to win it all.
Kevin Ollie, who took over the program from Jim Calhoun right before the 2012-13 season, became the first coach to win a national title in his first NCAA Tournament since Steve Fisher in 1989.
And in doing so, UConn gave the American Athletic Conference, which was forced to split from the Big East in a messy divorce 15 months ago, a national title in its first year of existence.
Though UConn never trailed, Kentucky threatened to come back a number of times. Ultimately, though, the Wildcats – who made their own improbable journey to the championship game as a No. 8 seed – couldn't overcome shooting 13-of-24 from the foul line.
Napier, who scored 22 points on 8-of-16 field goals, made a 3-pointer with 6:50 left from the top of the key that seemed to halt Kentucky's momentum. Then DeAndre Daniels, who struggled all game and made just 4-of-14 field goals, gave UConn a 58-52 lead with 2:45 left on a hesitation move under the basket that put the Huskies in position to close out the title.
UConn scored 30 points in first 14 minutes of game but just 11 over the next 14, starting the second half 1-for-10 from the field and giving Kentucky reason to believe it could come back one final time.
UConn built the lead back to 48-39 with 10:50 left until Kentucky scored the next eight points. But the Wildcats couldn't get over the hump, even as fouls mounted against UConn's frontcourt and Huskies guard Ryan Boatright dealt with a sore left ankle that he turned with nine minutes left.
The first half followed a familiar script for Kentucky, which trailed early by at least nine points for a fifth straight game in the NCAA Tournament. Only this time, UConn was able to push the lead to 30-15 after 14 minutes, the Wildcats' largest deficit of the tournament.
But once again, Kentucky's resilience – and UConn's foul trouble – came to the surface before the end of the half. With Boatright and Daniels going to the bench with two fouls each and the Wildcats switching to a zone defense, the Huskies scored just five more points over the final six minutes of the half, allowing Kentucky to close within 35-31.