Little things lift UConn to NCAA champions

ARLINGTON, Texas — John Calipari, 2008:

“I really don’t worry about free-throw shooting … when I’m evaluating a player. If I’ve evaluated him by 25 things, free throws would be 26.”

It’s an expected view for the college basketball coach who has chosen a path of quick fixes with a new stable of McDonald’s All-Americans each fall, whose teams can do big and strong and quick and athletic with the best nationally.

And yet in most any other game, any other moment, any other setting, his words would ring true.

But not this game.

Not this moment.

Connecticut is a national champion for the fourth time because when it comes to the final Monday evening of each season, this almost always holds up: The side that executes those things thought inessential during a season is the one cutting down nets at its end.

Hidden within a 60-54 victory against Kentucky before a record gathering of 79,238 at AT&T Stadium are those areas that delivered the Huskies back to the top of the college basketball world. That made it possible for them to become the first national champion as a No. 7 seed. That allowed them to finish one of the more memorable NCAA runs in history with a coveted trophy.

That led them to conclude a journey from a post-season ban in 2013 for poor academics to “One Shining Moment,” ending with a picture of their team.

That created a moment for senior point guard Shabazz Napier to tell a nationally televised audience that this is what happens when you ban Connecticut.

“We were hungry,” Napier said. “We worked so hard for this — coaches, players, trainers, managers. So here we are, celebrating. I’m being humble and not cocky, but when you believe in something, you understand what might happen in certain situations. We didn’t come here for revenge because (of the ban). We came here to play. We won the whole thing.”

Again. Those things thought inessential.

Connecticut got every 50-50 ball. It out-rebounded Kentucky by one. It received huge shots from Niels Giffey and Ryan Boatright down the stretch when winning and a Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four performance from Napier were on the line.

A senior, a junior, a senior. All doing the little things that are vital to winning this game in this setting at this moment.

On the opposite bench, this is the second national championship a Calipari-coached team lost, as much as anything, at the free throw line, given that’s where his Memphis side in ‘08 allowed eventual champion Kansas back into a game it had trailed by nine with 2:20 left.

On Monday, Kentucky made just 13 of 24; Connecticut made 10 of 10.

Kentucky starters, all freshmen, were a combined 13-for-21.

“You could say we lost it from there, but the way we started the game so slow probably cost us it,” Calipari said. “We jogged up the court instead of sprinting. We let them attack us. Why did we start that way? They’re all freshmen. They’re scared to death. They were rattled. They aren’t machines. They aren’t robots. They aren’t computers. It was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people.

“I’ve never coached a team this young. Never. Hope I don’t ever again.”

Sure he does, because that’s the type of program he has built in Lexington, the road he has chosen more than anyone nationally because his recruiting talents afford him the option. He’s the best there is in a living room. The absolute best. But you don’t sign five-star recruits with one-and-done dreams to sit them.

Calipari has made his bed collecting the nation’s best players and hoping he can coach them into a championship team over the course of a season. He won it all in 2012 with a freshmen-dominated lineup; he almost won it all this time by starting five of them. They might have been rattled Monday, but they were talented enough to win. The other guys just played better.

The Wildcats will lose several of those who saw substantial minutes here early to the NBA Draft, as much a part of spring in Kentucky now as a certain horse race. Connecticut will lose two starters because they’re seniors and there is talk that Boatright might also depart school a year early for the pros.

Different teams, different situations.

A different ending for both Monday.

Not every final is a classic in the sense that it should be immediately replayed for its beauty and flow. This one went through some rough patches. Lots of them. But in the end, a rightful champion was crowned, one led by a second-year coach who masterfully pointed his team through the rough waters of being forced to stay home in 2013 to the last one standing today.

“Someone told me we were Cinderella,” Kevin Ollie said. “I was like, ‘No, we’re UConn.’ I mean, this is what we do. We were born for this. We were bred to cut down nets. We aren’t chasing championships. Championships are chasing us. We have four now. We are first now. Last year, we were last. We were (banned) from the tournament. But they kept believing. That’s what this is all about.”

That and all the little things that won them another title.

Including, yes, a perfect night shooting free throws.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @edgraney.

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