Huskies again star in the underdog role
ARLINGTON, Texas — The Connecticut Huskies lost their coach, their teammates, their chance to play at the NCAA tournament for a year. They were castoffs, unwanted mutts without a home, told they had no chance.
Well, look who’s woofing now.
Playing with a chip-on-their-shoulder mentality and poise down the stretch, UConn starred in the underdog role for the second time in four years, knocking off Kentucky 60-54 Monday night in North Texas.
“It feels so good to prove the world wrong,” UConn junior guard Ryan Boatright said.
It was quite a journey to get here.
UConn won a national title in 2011 behind do-it-all guard Kemba Walker. One setback after another followed.
Coach Jim Calhoun retired in 2012. Players left the program, three who transferred away and two who left for the NBA.
The Huskies were barred from the 2013 tournament for failing to meet NCAA academic standards. They scrambled to find a home after the Big East blew up, landing in the American Athletic Conference.
UConn fought its way through last season, winning 20 games despite no hope of playing in the postseason, yet still was dismissed heading into this season.
The Huskies turned a few heads with an opening 9-game winning streak but were given little chance of making a run after stumbling late in the season. Of the 11.01 million brackets submitted on ESPN.com, only 0.3 percent picked them to win it all.
UConn continued to go against the grain of public opinion as it advanced through the bracket, beating the odds while knocking off Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State and top-seeded Florida to reach the championship game.
Again, the Huskies were not supposed to win, told they were no match for the length and athleticism of Kentucky’s one-and-done freshmen, expected to get run over by those speedy ‘Cats.
Again, they wouldn’t listen.
Relying on its veteran leaders, UConn jumped to a big early lead, kept its composure whenever Kentucky tried to make a run and counterpunched every time the Wildcats landed a blow.
Senior Shabazz Napier took what he learned from Walker, his mentor, and became the leader who took the Huskies to a title, finishing with 22 points and six rebounds to bookend his career with national championships.
Gritty Ryan Boatright gave Kentucky fits at both ends all night, scoring 14 points while teaming with Napier to lock down the Wildcats’ heralded twins, Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
Kevin Ollie proved a more-than-able caretaker of the program Calhoun built, creating his own legacy by becoming the first coach to win a national title within two years on his first Division I job since Michigan’s Steve Fisher in 1989.