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UConn tops Kentucky for 4th NCAA title

ARLINGTON, Texas — Only nine minutes remained in the NCAA tournament championship when guard Ryan Boatright rolled his ankle.

His mother, Tanesha, watching from the AT&T Stadium stands, knew her son wouldn't budge. That's not how the Boatrights, from Aurora, operate. Apparently, not Connecticut either.

"I was screaming at him, 'Be tough,' " she said, pausing to sob as her son cut down nets. "My family was asking me, 'Is he going to keep going?' I knew he was going to keep going."

Said Boatright of his ankle: "It was hurting. But we worked too hard. We put in too much work. I wasn't going to let a little ankle sprain keep me from fighting for my brothers."

The No. 7-seeded Huskies proved themselves to be nothing but ever-marching survivors in the 60-54 victory against No. 8 seed Kentucky, bringing a fourth title to Storrs, Conn.

Just a season ago, the Huskies were banned from postseason play as a punishment for low academic scores. Instead of transferring before the season, the group of Huskies banded together.

Two seasons ago, legendary coach Jim Calhoun retired and former assistant Kevin Ollie took over.

This season, they lost to Louisville by 33 points, finished third in the American Athletic Conference and nearly were bounced in the first tournament game by St. Joseph's.

Connecticut players view the victory as validation for sitting out of the tournament last season as fires burned inside them. Senior guard Shabazz Napier predicted the championship run after the March loss to Louisville.

"We're hungry," said Napier, who scored 22 points. "When you prevent us from trying to go to the postseason and it wasn't our fault, we worked from that (point) on."

Boatright, an East Aurora graduate, added 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting with four rebounds, three assists and three steals.

The duo again was smothering on defense against Kentucky, which was playing for its second title in three seasons.

"One of our things was sprint it up the court so you attack (Boatright) and he's not attacking you," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "We jogged."

The Wildcats also whiffed on their free throws, making only 13 of 24. Connecticut made all 10 of its attempts from the line.

"The way we started the game probably cost us the game," Calipari said. "Why do you think (we) started that way? They're all freshmen. They're scared to death again."

That never bothered the Wildcats before. They came back from deficits in every tournament game to advance to the championship, winning the previous three games on late 3-pointers by Aaron Harrison.

They fell behind by 15 points in the first half against Connecticut, the most they had trailed in a tournament game. The Huskies never trailed, although Kentucky made several runs to draw to within a point.

Forward James Young led Kentucky with 20 points, while Julius Randle added 10 points. Randle left the game for stretches in the first half with what appeared to be cramps.

Most of the 79,238 fans waited for the Wildcats to make their move.

They trailed by six points with 2:24 remaining. Kentucky missed two more free throws down the stretch and a layup by Napier with 1:33 left provided a buffer for UConn.

After trailing by 15 points in the first half, the Wildcats closed to within a point three times in the second half. Kentucky, which started the season ranked No. 1, could never kick down the door against the determined Huskies.

The Wildcats left the court with more questions. With seven freshmen who played regularly, many are expected to leave for the NBA. A tweet sent before the game from former Wildcat Rex Chapman said Calipari would leave for the Lakers after the season.

“The Lakers have a basketball coach,” he said. “Kentucky has a basketball coach. I got the best job in the country. I’m not going to even dignify that stuff.”

For Connecticut, the expectations were just raised back to the old standard.

“Someone called us Cinderella,” said Ollie, flashing an incredulous expression. “No. We’re UConn. This is what we do. We’re born for this. We’re bred to cut down nets.”

Ollie became just the fourth African-American coach to win the championship and the first since Tubby Smith in 1998.

The Huskies bonded through their personal adversity.

Ollie hugged his mother, who has breast cancer, and his wife on the court. Napier slung his arm around his mother’s neck as they craned to watch "One Shining Moment" on the giant video board. Boatright, who struggled this year with the murder of his cousin, sought out his mother for a postgame embrace.

The victory was a validation for the Boatrights, who were often criticized when Ryan initially accepted a scholarship in junior high to USC and later missed games as a freshman because of an NCAA investigation into improper benefits received by his family.

“It’s about going after what your desires and a goal you set yourself to,” Tanesha Boatright said. “And he accomplished it. The distractions, the investigation, coaches retiring, naysayers, it didn’t matter. He’s just a warrior. He’s just a fighter. Even at times when I didn’t understand, he’d tell me, ‘Mom, I got it.’”

For Boatright, the victory was confirmed his determination.

“I’m going to enjoy this as much as I can,” he said, noting he hasn’t made a decision about leaving for the NBA. “I’m just blessed to be here.”

Few saw Connecticut making this championship run. The players believed they were due.

“When you believe something so much you understand what may happen,” Napier said.

sryan@tribune.com

Twitter @sryantribune

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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