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Connecticut’s Hungry Huskies Halt Harried Hatchlings of Kentucky

April 8, 2014

[Location: Jerry World, Deep in the Heart of Texas]

[Scene: Inside a cavernous temple to sporting entertainment, filled with 80,000 spectators of various interest and fanaticism. At the center of the arena floor, ten young men in loose clothing are running back and forth on a 94’ x 50’ swath of painted hardwood, one of them bouncing a small brown leather sphere, all attempting to engage in a game known as “basketball.” Cut to the early moments in the second half of the contest, which for all intents and purposes had become a stalemate …]

 

It was not the best of times, and for most ardent but neutral observers of this NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship™, it was closer to the worst of times. The second half had unfolded like an arm-wrestling match, lots of pulling and pushing that never really got anywhere. Over the second half’s first eight minutes, the Kentucky Wildcats had outscored the Connecticut Huskies 8-6, but Connecticut continued to cling to the lead at 41-39. The teams had combined to shoot 4-20 from the field with more turnovers (5) than made baskets. Video of this game wasn’t going to be sent to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield for posterity. It did provide a lesson in resiliency however, as both teams took turns shifting the momentum until the clock (thankfully) ran out of time.

Connecticut’s lead was like a rubber band all game long, stretching and contracting but never breaking, as the teams then traded mini-runs – Connecticut scored the next seven (7) points in under a minute of game time to extend their lead to 48-39, and Kentucky responded with an 8-0 run over the next three (3) minutes of their own to get back within one at the under-8 media timeout, 7:54 to go – but one got the sense Kentucky would never get over the top. Every time Kentucky fought back and had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in the second half – by my count 15 such opportunities, the last one coming down 47-48 with 7:29 left when Aaron Harrison missed a three – they failed to bridge the gap. Only Sisyphus would understand the absurdity of their toil.

Looking back at the four themes I had identified before the game in this very space, it became clear why Connecticut prevailed 60-54 to win their fourth National Title …

  • Rebounding – Connecticut actually won the overall rebounding battle, 34-33, and held their own on the offensive boards as well, limiting Kentucky to 10 offensive rebounds while corralling 26 defensive rebounds.
  • Tempo – Connecticut clearly dictated the terms of this conflict, keeping the score in the 50s and holding Kentucky to 31.9% from the field. Connecticut had nine (9) steals and harassed Kentucky ballhandlers for 40 minutes, as the Harrison twins combined for seven (7) turnovers and appeared to be bothered by the quickness of Connecticut’s “Batman and Robin” tandem of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright even when they didn’t turn the ball over. Napier and Boatright also combined for 36 of Connecticut’s 60 points, while the “Wonder Twins” combined for 15.
  • DeAndre Daniels – He didn’t quite have the same level of production that he did in Saturday’s win over Florida (8 pts/6 reb/2 blk), but Daniels’ impact was clear to see regardless. Connecticut built a 15-point lead with him on the floor in the first half, but once he was whistled for his second foul with 5:41 left and Connecticut up 30-15, Kentucky ’s first half comeback commenced with him on the bench, reducing the lead to four (4) by halftime. Daniels stayed out of foul trouble in the second half, and although he never seemed to regain his rhythm offensively, Kentucky’s frontcourt endured tough sledding throughout due in large part to Daniels’ defensive efforts.
  • Kentucky in the Post – Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress were relatively stifled by the Huskies’ frontcourt (9 pts/9 reb/2 blks in 42 minutes combined) and Marcus Lee was a non-factor (no stats except for 1 foul in 6 minutes). Julius Randle never really got it going either, 10pts/6reb/4ast on only 7 shot attempts, and in retrospect Kentucky’s guards did not feed Randle enough of the ball.

Other than those four, there was a fifth factor that favored Head Coach Kevin Ollie’s team and was huge in final outcome, free-throw shooting: Kentucky was 13-24, stirring the echoes of John Calipari’s 2008 Memphis squad that went 12-19 from the FT line in the National Championship and lost to Kansas, while Connecticut was a perfect 10-10, which not only affected Connecticut’s ability to hold onto the lead, but surely impacted Kentucky’s defensive strategy in the last three minutes as precious seconds ticked away with the ball in Napier’s hands (an 86.9% FT shooter) and the Wildcats afraid to foul him. So it was that Kentucky’s version of the Fab Five met the same end as the previous one.

Final Four MOP Napier and his Hungry Huskies ended their season where 350 other teams wanted to be, standing on the podium, atop the college basketball’s highest peak with everyone else beneath their gaze. Everyone else has already moved on to the bittersweet refrain of “next year”, and while Kentucky as well as the Dukes, Arizonas and Kansases of the world are full of promise and hope, many other contenders for 2015 can look to Connecticut, the Preseason #18/19-ranked team whose eight (8) losses before the NCAAs merited them a No. 7 seed, and see that despite whatever setbacks occur in their journey, all’s well that ends well.

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From → Basketball, Sports

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