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UConn wins national championship with dogged determination

Updated: April 8, 2014 12:34PM

ARLINGTON, Texas — Nearly 80,000 fans, easily 90 percent of them screaming for Kentucky.

One surge after another by the big, bad Wildcats, threatening to put a smaller, lesser-known, never-really-expected-to-do-this opponent away.

It was a matter of if, not when. It was a matter of jaw-dropping athletes, not lion-hearted competitors. It was going to go UK’s way because, well, how could it not?

We were wrong. So wrong.

All of us who believed Kentucky was the inevitable finally learned that Connecticut — where were the Huskies all winter? — is the indomitable.

UConn’s 60-54 victory in Monday night’s national championship game won’t go down as one of the epic title games in the history of this tournament, but so what? Sometimes, championships are meant to be grinded through. Sometimes, the best team isn’t revealed until it has worked its way all the way up, over and through the crowd of presumed contenders.

The Huskies lost three times to Louisville — by 33 in the regular-season finale — and finished third in the American Athletic Conference. They were a No. 7 seed in this tournament yet far from eighth-seeded Kentucky in reputation and stature. Upon review, that they reached this point has to be the greatest, most unexpected success in the history of a program that now has four national titles in 15 years.

“I seen it coming — check my Twitter,” former Bulls guard Rip Hamilton, a UConn hero, told the Sun-Times on the court afterward. “This team has been great. The coaches, the players, great. It was coming. I’m happy for them and for my school. It’s a special place.”

Against St. Joe’s in their opening tourney game, the Huskies rallied to win in overtime. Big East champ Villanova didn’t run them ragged; it was the other way around. A shootout against up-and-down Iowa State? No problem.

Michigan State? Florida? The two teams playing the best basketball in the country entering the tournament were picked apart — frankly, embarrassed — by Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and this dogged pack of winners.

But Kentucky was a different animal. The Wildcats were falling behind in every game — as they did again, 30-15, in the final — but roaring back with flurries of drives, dunks and long balls. Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early put 31 on the Wildcats. Louisville’s Russ Smith and Luke Hancock and Michigan’s Nik Stauskas went off, too. But only Napier (22 points, six rebounds) and Boatright (14 points) had the power to out-star the most star-laden team in the land.

The Huskies did it with defense. They did it with a chins-up, chests-out, never-stop-believing approach honed over all these weeks and months by coach Kevin Ollie.

They were so good — Kentucky, too — that the teams’ combined seed of 15, highest for a title game in tournament history, was rendered all but meaningless.

When Napier had the microphone on the winner’s podium, he ignored interviewer Jim Nantz’s question and instead addressed the UConn faithful. This one was for all of them, he said — for the few who believed in the Huskies when the program was banned from tournament play last season, and who stuck with them through every bump of a glory ride.

“This is what happen when you ban us!” he shouted.

A little later, the TV lights off and the confetti already being swept away, Napier said he’d thought of that line while lying in bed the night before.

“I knew we were going to win,” he said.

And how about Ollie? In the tourney opener against St. Joe’s, he was overshadowed by media favorite Phil Martelli. After that, it was Jay Wright, Fred Hoiberg, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan and finally John Calipari — a coaching who’s-who, to be sure.

But it’s Ollie. It’s Napier. It’s Boatright. It’s the Huskies, that’s who.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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