He climbed the ladder Monday night to cut down a piece of the net, and then he hugged his players as the UConn faithful watched Kevin Ollie and the rest of the players cut down a share of the championship net. Shabazz Napier hugged his mother and then he wiped tears as his teammates jumped for joy after the Huskies’ 60-54 defeat of Kentucky.
Oh what a night, indeed. There is nothing like a bittersweet moment to grab people’s interest and when you have the most dangerous backcourt in the country, you will have a legitimate chance to win a national title. And make no mistake UConn won a national championship. Napier had forever etched his name in the pantheon of UConn greats, and the Huskies ended Kentucky’s storybook season.
It was quite a moment for the senior point guard, after many wrote off the Huskies, because nobody could stop Kentucky’s all-freshman starting five throughout the 2014 NCAA tournament. But now, after the Huskies had the kind of run that was unimaginable, Napier has become a stable point guard for UConn’s basketball program. There’s a sense of delight for a man who runs UConn’s relentless backcourt with his teammate, Ryan Boatright. Napier is a scorer, the sort of point guard who attacks the basket, as he was the star on this night. His footwork was terrific, his amazing ball-handling skills were dynamic and, best of all, his on-ball defense gave the Wildcats nightmares.
Boatright, it turns out, was the better on-ball defender, and Kentucky couldn’t stop him. There was nothing to make the UConn Huskies think this night would be anything but remarkable. There’s almost never a time when the Huskies don’t script the kind of tournament run that becomes the story of the college basketball season. Napier and Boatright had an amazing run with near-perfection.
They’d had another dominant performance. They’d stopped a tough Kentucky squad, then raised the trophy in Texas. It couldn’t have ended more perfectly, and the Huskies became the hottest team in recent weeks during a crazy tournament run, especially on Monday night for a game with so much at stake.
Napier, known to everyone as a miracle-worker, was the star of the game, and he easily is the most popular player in college basketball. Boatright, known as a little guard, was also a star in the backcourt. It’s why, as the smallest and toughest guards dominated, the Huskies are winners. The Huskies, who entered Monday night’s game as the underdogs, featured a pair of guards who combined for 36 points and 10 rebounds. Together, they were a dynamic duo that demoralized the Wildcats with superior defense and dazzling shots.
So this time, after upsetting an unbeaten Wichita State, after coming from behind to stun Louisville, the defending champions, and after defeating Michigan, last year’s runner-ups, and after storming back to beat Wisconsin on Saturday, Kentucky could not beat the Huskies.
If only Kentucky had not made an awful lot of mistakes that cost them big time in a big game. It was the wrong night to have 13 turnovers, six caused by Napier and Boatright. The UConn guards alone held Kentucky to just 39.1 percent shooting. And thankfully, the Huskies kept believing and fighting, building a lead and making it impossible for the comeback kids to pull off another miracle. And, oh yes, they made all 10 shots from the line. But so many questions remained late in the second half that needed to be answered as time dwindled down. Surely, on this night, Kentucky cut a nine-point deficit to three.
Never mind that Boatright tweaked his left ankle with nine minutes to play. He quickly called a timeout and the team trainer treated him in the huddle, but he wasn’t done and it wouldn’t stop him from firing shots. At the time, of course, no one imagined UConn to beat a tougher and more talented Kentucky basketball team, and that would seem realistic when Boatright hit a pull-up jumper with 4:13 left. He had 14 points and his teammate, Napier finished with 22. This wasn’t the first time Napier embraced much triumph, but it was much more special than winning a national championship in 2011, the freshman who was overshadowed by the UConn star guard Kemba Walker.
The best and toughest guards play at a school with a history of developing guards. Napier and Boatright are small and tough, and when it was time to give it a fight, they fought through adversity collectively. It’s all part of maturity, and after Napier was tested quite a bit and endured a miserable sophomore season, he finally made big plays and led the Huskies on improbable runs. He’s a tough guy, who grew up in a tough neighborhood out of Roxbury, and finally, he was playing like the toughest guy on the court, obligated to his role as the team’s emotional leader, and not once did he struggle. Before Ollie, Jim Calhoun won three national championships. But on this night, Calhoun was in the crowd; he smiled and relived the moment. It’s such a great story, such a memorable night, but it doesn’t feel that way for a disappointed Kentucky team.
The Wildcats, devoid of a national title, couldn’t make their final desperation shot, and missing two free throws cost Kentucky a national championship. After beating Wisconsin with a last-second 3-pointer on Saturday, there were no miracles from Aaron Harrison on this particular night. With a chance to give his team a lead, he missed a desperation shot.
Now, as usual, UConn wins a national championship. Winning has become a basketball tradition in Storrs, Conn., and the talented guards keep coming and coming — Rip Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin and Walker.
But greater, Napier and Boatright.