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Connecticut won't be denied in 60-54 win over Kentucky for NCAA title

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison launched a last-seconds three-point shot Monday from the same spot he'd knocked two straight opponents out of the tournament.

This time he didn't make it, though, and this time it didn't matter.

Connecticut didn't just defeat Kentucky, 60-54, to win the NCAA title Monday night before a crowd of 79,238 at AT&T Stadium.

BOX SCORE: Connecticut 60, Kentucky 54

Connecticut never trailed in the game, going wire to wire to cap a tournament run that was even more improbable than Kentucky's.

The win earned the Huskies their fourth national title since 1999 while it denied the Wildcats their ninth.

UCLA basketball remained three national titles ahead of Kentucky basketball but may have to now worry about Connecticut basketball.

And just think, St. Joseph's, this could have been you.

The small Jesuit school in Philadelphia led Connecticut by three points in the teams' opening NCAA game before losing in overtime.

Just think, Louisville, this could have been you. The Cardinals defeated Connecticut by 33 points this season but couldn't get past Kentucky in the tournament to get back to Connecticut.

And what if the NCAA selection committee had not left Southern Methodist out of this year's field of 68? Larry Brown's team defeated Connecticut twice this season.

In the end, of course, none of it mattered. The Huskies of Storrs survived that near miss against St. Joe's and began the processional march to madness, defeating Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida and finally Kentucky.

No. 7 Connecticut became the second-lowest seeded team to win the NCAA title. Villanova was No. 8 when it won in 1985.

“Nobody picked us to win, nobody!” a Connecticut assistant coach yelled as he ran into a jubilant postgame locker room.

Yeah, so?

This was a program banned from the tournament last year as punishment for not meeting academic standards. Some players left, some opted for the NBA, but the ones who stayed were rewarded.

“It started 18 months ago,” second-year Connecticut Coach Kevin Ollie said, “when they kept believing and stayed loyal to the program.”

Ollie turned out to be the glue that held a proud program together. The administration deserves credit for heeding former coach Jim Calhoun's strong advice to hire Ollie despite his not having any head coaching experience.

Calhoun retired in 2012 after leading the program to three national titles.

Ollie said as the clocked ticked down Monday he looked at Calhoun and thought: “He paved the way. He's my second father. If he didn't believe in me, I don't think I would have this job.”

Calhoun, like a proud second father, sat in Connecticut's locker room Monday and reflected on why he thought Ollie was the right guy.

Ollie, a graduate of Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, somehow survived 13 years in the NBA without a jump shot.

“He had 13, 10-day contracts in his career,” Calhoun said. “You've got to be a special guy.”

Ollie did all right in his first NCAA tournament.

“St Joe's could have beat us,” Calhoun said. “They came a millisecond from getting the rebound that would have beat us.”

Sometimes a close call can jolt a team into contention.

“Somebody's got to find themselves at the right time, and we did,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun said Ollie made a brilliant tactical move in the second half by going to a small lineup against Kentucky's big men.

“Kevin thought they could out-quick them,” Calhoun said.

Connecticut was more balanced than the 2011 title team that rode guard Kemba Walker to the title, although guard Shabazz Napier was still the team's overwhelming best player.

He led the team with 22 points Monday and was named the Final Four's most outstanding player.

Napier said he knew the Huskies were going to win. He said the players who stayed after the NCAA ban used it as motivation.

But he also said, “We didn't come out here to get any revenge, or anything like that, we came here to play.”

Kentucky Coach John Calipari feared his team was in trouble almost from the opening tip. He thought his seven featured freshmen might freeze under the big lights in Jerry Jones' house.

“They're all freshmen,” Calipari said, “they were scared to death.”

Calipari tried to calm his Wildcats down but, before you knew it, Connecticut had jumped to a 30-15 first-half lead.

Calipari gambled and went to a zone, which he rarely does, but it worked in whittling the lead to three at halftime. “I thought we were going to win the game,” he said.

Kentucky scored first in the second half to cut the lead to one but Connecticut just wouldn't buckle.

Connecticut pushed the lead back to nine, and Kentucky cut it back to one again with 8:13 left.

Kentucky couldn't make the big shot, or stop, at the right time.

Some basketball purists might criticize Calipari for not ordering more fouls at the end of the game to force Connecticut to the free-throw line.

It was only a four-point game with a minute left but Calipari elected to play defense. “Why not foul?” he asked. “Because they don't miss any free throws.”

Connecticut, the best shooting free throw team in the tournament, finished 10 for 10 in the championship game.

“Those were the dice we rolled,” Calipari said.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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