After needing overtime to survive St. Joe's in the round of 64, the Connecticut Huskies capped a stunning title run by knocking off the fantastic freshmen of Kentucky to claim the national championship by a 60-54 score.
Through a gritty, physical contest, UConn played stout defense and controlled the flow of the game. The Huskies never trailed and even opened a 15-point lead in the first half. Though this marked the first tournament appearance for UConn coach Kevin Ollie, his team knocked off three elite coaches with impressive resumes in Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Florida's Billy Donovan and Kentucky's John Calipari.
Memories of their poor free-throw shooting will haunt the Wildcats this offseason. UConn drained all 10 of its foul shots, but Kentucky got to the line 24 times and missed 11 of their attempts. Other than James Young, the team hit just five out of 15 attempts from the charity stripe.
Beyond the foul free-throw shooting, here are the four matchups that helped deliver a stirring victory for UConn and a second title in four years.
Starting Backcourts: Speed vs. Size
The biggest storyline entering the game was the sensational play of Shabazz Napier clashing against the cold-blooded clutch shooting of Aaron Harrison. UConn's Ryan Boatright joined Napier in their undersized backcourt against 6'6" twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
The differentiating factor in the backcourts was Kentucky's size against Connecticut's speed, and speed clearly won out. Despite each giving up five inches on the Harrisons, Napier and Boatright dropped 36 points to just 15 for the twins. Napier unsurprisingly claimed the Most Outstanding Player honor. Napier and Boatright also helped key the Huskies defense and netted six of the team's nine steals.
UConn allowed 63.2 points per game during the season, ranking 31st in the country. After the Wildcats had eclipsed 70 points in their previous four tournament wins, they managed a measly 54 points, the lowest scoring output of the season, and UConn's backcourt defense helped spur that stifling play.
Frontcourt Stars: DeAndre Daniels vs. Julius Randle
Daniels provided excellent secondary scoring for Connecticut during the season, but he did not have his offense working against the depth and length of Kentucky's frontcourt. Daniels misfired on 10 of 14 field-goal attempts and finished with eight points, six rebounds and two blocks. He averaged over 13 points per game on the season and came into Monday's game averaging 17.6 points in the tournament.
Julius Randle further solidified his status as a top-10, and likely a top-six, pick behind continued strong play in the tournament, but he fell off his mark slightly in the final two games. After becoming only the second freshman ever to record double-doubles in his first four NCAA tournament game, Randle collected just 11 rebounds in the next two games.
Randle still tallied a decent line of 10 points, six boards and four assists, but each team's top forward saw their usual production muted. Though Daniels had a middling game, holding down Randle was far more important.
John Calipari's Mind Games: James Young vs. Niels Giffey
As Kentucky coach John Calipari told the Associated Press (via the Los Angeles Times) after the team's Final Four win over Wisconsin, "James Young has had 25-point games, which I'll predict he'll have in this Monday night's game." The coach then turned down the table and addressed Young, saying: "You listening to me? I'm putting a positive seed in your mind right now."
That positive seed germinated and grew, but not quite enough. Calipari appeared quasi-psychic with that boast about Young's scoring ability, as the young man ended the night with a team-high 20 points on 13 shots and a game-high seven rebounds.
Giffey had the swingman size to match Young, but he lacked that same scoring prowess. Though the German chipped in 10 points and five boards, Young's big night against him nearly carried Kentucky to victory.
Kentucky averaged 41.3 rebounds per game during the season, fifth in the nation, yet UConn won the battle on the boards, 34-33. Kentucky grabbed two more offensive rebounds, but it was vital for Connecticut to keep the margin on the glass close.
That was UConn's 8th offensive rebound, just one less than Kentucky, which is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation.— Jerry Palm (@jppalmCBS) April 8, 2014
UConn's bench saw more court time, but the 11 rebounds they added were significant. Center Amida Brimah grabbed four boards, and guard Lasan Kromah snagged six in 20 minutes to tie the team high. Alex Poythress tallied five of the Wildcats' six rebounds off the bench, though he also picked up four fouls in 17 minutes.
If Kentucky could have owned the boards and produced more second-chance points, it might have muted the effect of the terrible free-throw shooting and 39 percent futility from the field. In the end, the Huskies beat the Wildcats in part at their own game by keeping the rebounding margin close and coming out on top.