Final Four Truths
Most arrogant champs ever: UConn mocks Kentucky's toughness, claims revenge on NCAA in wild Final Four
It ends with the two best guards on the floor — the two guards who barked at themselves even more than they barked at Kentucky in the national championship game — burying each other in a hug.
Ryan Boatright's twisted ankle is liable to give out at any moment, but that means little now. Championship adrenalin, toughness, grit and, yes, arrogance, have brought him and Shabazz Napier just far enough. UConn's the best team in the nation again, hobbling off the grand Jerry World stage with a 60-54 win over a talent-superior Kentucky squad. It's a win built on will, desire and one of the NCAA tournament's all-time-great coaching jobs.
Kentucky comes out shaking. UConn comes out swinging — and never stops. No matter what happens.
Kentucky boasts eight elite-level NBA prospects on its roster. UConn has no certain first rounders, Shabazz, Boatright and coach Kevin Ollie. And that's enough. Well, that and a street fighter's snarl.
"We out-toughed them," UConn senior forward Niels Giffey boasts. "We just out-toughed them."
Giffey is talking on the confetti-strewn raised court of this record-breaking North Texas Final Four. All the Huskies are lingering here, pieces of the net tucked behind their ear or still clutched in eager hands.
UConn's pulled off one of the most defiant NCAA tournament runs of all time. Banned from even participating in the Big Dance last season due to its basketball program's horrific academic record, Ollie's Huskies hardly seemed like anything close to a threat to win the program's fourth national championship in 15 years for much of this season either.
UConn lost to a putrid University of Houston team, and it got handled by an SMU team that the selection committee somehow didn't deem worthy of a tournament berth twice in the regular season. Heck, Napier and Co. looked dead in their first-round NCAA tournament game against ho-hum St. Joseph's.
Instead, it ends in confetti, commemorative T-shirts and hats. Former UConn great Ray Allen is in the middle of the celebration, taking a break from the Miami Heat to party with the next wave of great UConn guards. All the Huskies are wearing "Lone Star Statement" T-shirts.
"Ladies and gentlemen, can I get your attention please — can I get your attention — you're looking at the Hungry Huskies," Napier screams from the trophy ceremony stage. "This is what happens when you ban us last year."
There's something a little untoward and something a little delicious about mocking the organization giving you a big shiny trophy. Then again, few think the NCAA holds much of a high moral ground these days. Yes, Napier and UConn show supreme arrogance in their moment of triumph.
But this team couldn't have achieved this moment without audacious arrogance.
"You're looking at the Hungry Huskies," Shabazz Napier screams from the trophy ceremony stage. "This is what happens when you ban us."
"This moment isn't about the media attention or the back slapping or even that trophy," says Tanesha Boatright, the mother of the UConn guard who memorably threatened to sue the NCAA over UConn's postseason ban last year. "It's about these young men coming together and achieving a goal that nobody thought was possible."
The UConn backcourt is brilliant on college basketball's biggest stage. Napier (22 points on 8-for-16 shooting) and Boatright (14 on 5-for-6 marksmanship) combine to score or set up 50 of the Huskies' 60 points.
"Me and Shabazz have got a lot of heart, and we're tough," Boatright says. "We're tough-minded and tough physically. We're not going to back down from nobody."
Kentucky backs over its own dreams by clanging 11 free throws in a championship game. (The charity stripe woes dredge up memories of that John Calipari-coached Memphis team that blew another title game to an inferior team with horrific free-throw shooting.)
"We came out nervous," says Aaron Harrison, the usual Kentucky game-winning hero, one half of the Houston-reared twins who face an uncertain NBA-or-not future now. "I'm not sure why."
Shabazz Napier attitude
Kentucky comes out shaking. UConn comes out swinging — and never stops. No matter what happens. Boatright twists his ankle and comes up limping with nine minutes remaining, but he refuses to leave the game. He won't let this moment go.
"I'm going to tough it out!" he screams at Ollie, the coach loving every moment of it.
"When you have guards like that, you always have a chance in the NCAA tournament," says Jim Calhoun, the former UConn coach who desperately wants back in the game, holding court on the confetti-covered court.
The Huskies were arrogant under Calhoun too. And awfully good in the big moments.
UConn jumps out to a 19-10 and 30-15 leads with Boatright and Napier's ball pressure controlling the action this night. Andrew Harrison — Kentucky's freshman point guard — struggles with Boatright's in-your-jersey defense, turning the ball over three times in the game's first 15 minutes.
Much like in their last four NCAA tournament games — all epics in their own right — the Wildcats find their footing though. They start forcing UConn turnovers, run and shoot open threes in transition. It's a 35-31 game at halftime. The Huskies still hold the lead, but they're no longer in total control.
An NCAA tournament that sees 22 of its 67 games decided by five points or less — and 12 determined by only one or two points — gets one more close one. It's not a classic in any sense unless you're a UConn fan. (The teams combine for 23 turnovers, and both shoot under 42 percent from the field.)
When Napier hits a pull-up three, stretching UConn's lead back to nine points in the second half, Calipari's team finds itself needing another answer. They pull within one at 48-47, have a shot at taking the lead with a three from Aaron Harrison, the hero of three straight Kentucky thrillers. Harrison misses; the Huskies never look back.
Soon, the One Shining Moment video is playing on the mammoth Jumbotron screen as Tanesha Boatright and the other UConn parents tear up. Napier and Boatright still look ready for a fight, though. Who's next?
"We didn't come out here to get revenge or anything like that," Napier insists later in the press conference room.
They could have fooled everyone in the whole damn stadium. The most arrogant champion ever? Sure. The fiercest fighters in the sport? No doubt.