So there was UConn down the stretch against Kentucky Saturday night, having to wrest needed playmaking from the clutches of fatigue, having to defend, having to make free throws. Old-fashioned stuff. The best stuff, Jim Calhoun will tell you.
"We were tired, and I'm sure they were tired," Calhoun said. "We knew we weren't going to make every shot, but I said if we can defend them, we can win this basketball game."
The Huskies had mustered a final burst of offense to push ahead in what became a classic, if not fluid, Final Four game. And, yes, they did defend, stifling Kentucky in the final minutes before watching Shabazz Napier step to the free throw line with 2 seconds remaining and a two-point lead.
He made the first, and made the second — shades of Khalid El-Amin in the 1999 final against Duke. Brandon Knight made a meaningless three-pointer at the buzzer for Kentucky, and UConn secured a 56-55 victory to advance to face Butler in Monday's national championship game. The biggest crowd in NCAA Tournament history, 75,421, watched it happen.
The Huskies (31-9) already had tied a modern NCAA record by playing their 40th game of the season. It had to go one more, didn't it? This wild ride of moments and magic will end with UConn lacing up its sneakers for a shot at the program's third national title, the final stop on a journey marked by Walker's greatness and prolonged Saturday by the entire team's resolve.
Asked if he's been able to get a handle on what has been accomplished over the last month or so, Walker said, "No, honestly. Maybe it will all hit me once it's all over and we're cutting down the nets."
Saturday's game took 39 minutes and 58 seconds to secure. UConn had a six-point when Napier, 0-for-6 to that point, made a circus up-and-under layup with 2:30 remaining. DeAndre Liggins answered with a three-pointer. Lamb missed a floater with 1:13 left and Knight missed a three at the other end. Josh Harrellson grabbed the 15th Kentucky offensive rebound and Liggins was fouled. He made one of two free throws, UConn took possession and Napier turned it over with 16 seconds left.
After a timeout, Liggins missed a three with 6 seconds left, Napier grabbing the rebound. There was a long delay after he was fouled as officials determined exactly had how much time remained. Napier didn't blink at the line.
"I had struggled," he said. "But I said, 'Why not make these free throws?'"
Walker had 18 points and seven assists, Lamb had 12 points and nine rebounds, Alex Oriakhi had eight points and 10 rebounds. Knight had 17 points for Kentucky (29-9) but made just 6 of 23 shots. Doron Lamb had 13 points, 11 in the second half. The freewheeling Wildcats were 9-for-27 on threes.
The Huskies made just 1 of 12 three-pointers, committed 15 turnovers, allowed 15 offensive rebounds and let a 10-point halftime lead quickly disappear.
But the winning streak is at 10. And Kentucky's winning streak of 10 is over, as is its season. John Calipari has been to three Final Fours with three different teams but his quest for a title is on hold.
"What happens in college basketball, when it ends, you fall off a cliff just then," Calipari said. "I didn't know it till [Liggins] missed that shot and that kid made both free throws. I thought if he missed one, the same play we ran, we were going to run and get that shot and it was going to go to overtime. Then all of a sudden he makes it and you're thinking, maybe they'll foul on a three-point shot. You fall off a cliff. It's over."
That kid, Napier, and all those kids, this joyful group of Huskies, are on to face Butler, which lost last year's title game to Duke. The Bulldogs defeated Virginia Commonwealth 70-62 in Saturday's first semifinal. The Huskies are seeking their third title.
UConn rode a few scoring spurts and stellar defense to a 31-21 halftime lead, but Kentucky came out in the second half and unleashed a wave of energy. Walker twice missed badly in the lane, Knight and Darius Miller made three-pointers and, bang, just like that the lead was down to four and Calhoun was signaling for a timeout.
This became a fight. Two power programs and two high-profile coaches trying to stave off the other and find decisive playmaking. Calipari was all movement on the sideline, jumping and clapping. Calhoun stood and paced, arms crossed.
The Huskies kept pulling ahead, 46-42 after a put-back dunk by Oriakhi and drive by Jeremy Lamb, but Kentucky answered with baskets by Terrence Jones and Knight. Both teams were clearly worn out at this point, but UConn held on, and is marching on.
"There are a thousand guys out there that do incredible jobs coaching and don't necessarily have the opportunity that I do," Calhoun said. "I have the opportunity to coach guys like this."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun