Napier's 22 Points Helps UConn Beat Kentucky In Men's Final
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This year's NCAA men's basketball tournament was billed as wide open. Anyone could win - and a seventh seed did. Makes you wonder what those seeds actually mean. The University of Connecticut was banned from the tournament last year. In a dramatic turnaround, the Yukon Huskies are this year's champs after beating Kentucky last night. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: We'll pick it up at halftime, when the game appeared to be following a familiar script for the favored Kentucky Wildcats. After a sluggish start that dropped them 15 points behind, they pulled within four. Perfect. Just like in their previous tournament wins over some of college basketball's best - Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin - games in which they were either tied or behind at the half.
UConn fans were nervous and worried about the zone defense Kentucky used right before halftime that slowed down the Huskies. JR, from Brandord, Connecticut, didn't want to give his last name or any advice on how to handle the zone. How are they going to figure that out? Great outside shooting?
JR: Don't know or I'd be the coach.
GOLDMAN: Lucky for him, UConn's Kevin Ollie had the coaching thing covered. The plan going in was to try to take away Kentucky's strengths - inside scoring and rebounding, and make them shoot from outside, which is not a strength, despite the string of crazy game-winning three pointers by guard Aaron Harrison.
Mission essentially accomplished. UConn, which has evolved into a terrific defensive team, out-rebounded Kentucky 34-33 and held the Wildcats to 39 percent shooting. And despite giving up that 15 point lead, UConn never trailed. Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
JOHN CALIPARI: They were not going to let us take this game from them.
GOLDMAN: A gaggle of happy Huskies left the on-court celebration and headed for their locker room. Trailing the pack, senior point guard Shabazz Napier. His 22 points, six rebounds and all court brilliance secured the final four most outstanding player award.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: You got to believe in yourself.
GOLDMAN: Self-belief was an important ingredient on a team that lost a lot of believers. UConn was banned from the NCAA tournament last year because of poor academic scores, especially by players from previous years. Because of the ban, some players and coaches left, but a few seniors who celebrated last night didn't, including Napier and guard/forward Niels Giffey from Germany, who hit two critical three pointers against Kentucky.
NIELS GIFFEY: I think we wanted it more. It was more important for us to win this game, to go out, you know, bring the program back on top. It was just something deep, deep, deep in our heart.
GOLDMAN: At times, Kentucky didn't play with much heart, according to head coach Calipari. His players jogged instead of sprinted, he said. They missed 11 free throws. Coach Cal has spent this entire tournament praising his five freshman starters for maturing over several months into a self-reliant team with veteran-like poise. He marveled at their youth. But last night he blamed it.
CALIPARI: The way we started the game probably cost us the game. And somebody said, well, why do you think you started that way? Duh. They were all freshmen. They were scared to death again.
GOLDMAN: I've never coached a team this young, Calipari said, adding: I hope I don't ever again. If this were a forum on the so-called one and done players who stop by college and then head to the NBA, Kentucky showed its colors. And so did UConn - a team that starts two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore, all of them at night's end wearing NCAA champion baseball caps decorated with pieces of net cut down in victory. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
GREENE: Good days for sports fans in Connecticut. The Connecticut women's team takes on Notre Dame for the national championship tonight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.