Game #67 is over, and the one team left undefeated at the end of three weeks is the UConn Huskies.
It was a close, hard-fought game — of course it was — though for once with these two teams, there would be no last-minute heroics. The big shots and huge defensive stands were supplanted this time with offensive rebounds, free-throw shooting, and haywire sequences of bomb-chucking. And then all of a sudden it was over, and with it, the greatest tournament I can remember.
UConn wins, and takes with them their fourth championship title — as many as Duke, one short of UNC and Indiana — while also making it two in four years, not just for the program, but for four-year seniors Niels Giffey, Tyler Olander and Shabazz Napier. It's a hell of a thing, and here are the memories and takeaways from the final night of action.
Ain't Nothing In This World for Free
It's not the sexiest or sweepingest of conclusions to be reached after six-plus rounds of incredible big-game action, but if you were to take away one overarching lesson from this tournament, and particularly UConn's championship run, it would be this:
Kids, make your damn free throws.
For the tournament, UConn shot 101 from 115 at the free-throw line, good for an 88% conversion rate. Do you have any idea how incredible that is?
It's hard to find one player in college basketball who can regularly shoot close to 88% at the line, let alone an entire team that can average such a clip for more than a game or two. For some reference, the Portland Trail Blazers are the best shooting team in the NBA from the stripe, and they only make 82% of their cheap ones.
Obviously, that all starts with Shabazz Napier, an 87% shooter from the line for the season who missed exactly two free throws the entire tournament. But it also extends to the entire team, who was 10-10 tonight, with Lasan Kromah — pretty close to the last guy on the team you'd expect to be put on the line with less than a minute to go in a crucial situation — stepping up and calmly knocking two down in the game's biggest spot.
And everyone saw it coming, including Kentucky coach John Calipari, who told the media afterwards that he didn't bother fouling late to try to extend the game "because they weren't going to miss." Got that right.
On the flip side, Kentucky went just 13-24 from the line, including a couple crucial misses in the final minutes that could've really put the screws to UConn had they gone down. It was hardly surprising that UK didn't convert at a UConnian rate. "Duh, they're freshmen" was Calipari's on-the-nose explanation-and to be fair, they did get to the line more than twice as many times as the Huskies, forcing the issue with their athleticism and physicality.
But much as he may deny getting Memphis flashbacks ("No," was the normally verbose Cal's full response to a question about if he did), it's hard to refute that he could have been sitting at the winners' podium tonight as a three-time champ if he could figure out how to get his froshes to make their freebees.
In close games, and all of these games have been close, a couple makes or misses at the charity stripe could very well be the difference, and it's a market deficiency that UConn has somehow found a way to exploit to the tune of six straight NCAA tournament wins.
Steve Nash, if you can find a way to market instructional videos of those titular free-throw-shooting drills of yours, now would be the time to do so.
The only argument left that Shabazz Napier isn't Kemba Walker reincarnate is that Shabazz might actually have been better in his defining tournament run. Let's compare the final stat lines, shall we?
Kemba '11: 23.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 5.6 APG, 40% FG, 29% 3PT, 90% FT, 1.5 SPG, 2.6 TOV
Shabazz '14: 21.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 4.6 APG, 46% FG, 47% 3PT, 94% FT, 2.5 SPG, 3.5 TOV
Obviously, Kemba has Shabazz beat pretty handily in points and assists, and he turned the ball over a little less, too. But man, will you look at those shooting numbers?
Shabazz was basically Stephen Curry, while Kemba was much closer to Michael Carter-Williams. You forget now, but Walker was particularly brutal from the field in the final three games of the '11 tourney, hitting just a combined 2-16 from deep, with the worst coming in a 5-19 night against Butler in the finals.
Meanwhile, Napier closed the book on his miracle run shooting nearly 50% in his final three, including 23 points on 8-16 in the final. Don't discount the steals, either, as Shabazz's sticky fingers led to countless momentum-swinging breaks the other way for UConn.
Of course, there are mitigating factors that go beyond the numbers for why Kemba's '11 tournament is held in such esteem, like the number of huge shots he hit — though Napier has a resume of his own by now for that field, as well — and the fact that he did it all as a freshman, while Napier's was in his final year of eligibility. Nonetheless, I can't see a way that the two guys shouldn't be considered pretty close to equal in UConn lore, a pair of absolute runs for the ages.
By the way, one final note on Napier's performance last night: There was one point in the first half when Shabazz hit an easy-looking catch-and-shoot three virtually unguarded, and from my seat at the stadium, I couldn't fathom how Kentucky let him get that open.
But from the low press row vantage point, it was hard to see any kind of court demarcations — like, say, the specific location of three-point line — and when I saw the replay on TV, it dawned on me that he was that open because he was about four or five feet behind the arc, and no other player in college basketball would have entertained the thought of just raising up from there.
A truly special shot-maker, that Shabazz Napier.
A smaller thing from this game, but one of the more remarkable things about UConn getting through the likes of Michigan State and Florida was that they did so with floor-stretching forward Niels Giffey going Antarctic from the perimeter.
The guy simply could not hit a three, only going 1-10 over his previous four tournament games, after hitting over two a game in conference play. He missed his first couple early tonight, and then lost his confidence, passing up open shots for drives that weren't there, collapsing UConn's spacing in the meantime.
But coach Kevin Ollie told him to keep shooting at halftime, and when Napier and Ryan Boatright found him a couple times behind the arc in the second half, he fired away and found twine, two absolutely enormous threes that staved off UK runs and got the UConn offense firing on all pistons again.
Giffey isn't the biggest or even the fourth-biggest hero from this one, probably, but there's no telling if UConn takes the winners' podium last night if he doesn't find the confidence to take and make those two triples. Worth noting, worth remembering.
Ollie Does Is Win
Kevin Ollie was one smilin' fool after the game last night, and it's not particularly hard to divine why. The guy has made tournament history, beating a peerlessly historic run of coaches and programs in just his second year (and first-ever tournament) as head coach, outplanning and outmotivating some of the greats in the business and leaving all of his vanquished foes gushing about their conqueror.
Quoth Cal: "He's not only a a great coach...this guy is one of the great guys of all-time. And I hate losing, but I'm happy he won."
What did Ollie and UConn do in this one to hold Kentucky's high-powered offense to just 54 points in this one?
Well, basically, it was the Michigan State gameplan — load up the paint, give no quarter at the rim and let 'em kill you from the outside if they can. Early on, UK couldn't hit, and though they did find their shooting stride in the late first half, going into the break with all kinds of momentum, they went cold again in the second, missing their jumpers and continuing to come up empty at the basket.
Leading UK scorer Julius Randle ended with just 10 points, and more pressingly, just seven shots. UConn forced him to be a passer out of double and triple-teams, and though he mostly did a pretty good job of that — an impressive four assists for the big man, on two threes and two layups — the Huskies also got him a little overanxious at times, like midway through the second half where he sailed a skip pass into the upper deck.
If UConn focused their defensive efforts on stopping one guy, as they more or less had the last three games, Randle was the guy in this one, and it's hard to argue with the results.
Over this tournament, Kevin Ollie has proven to be something close to a tactical wunderkind, and even moreso, a commander of absolute respect from both his peers and his players. After this championship run, Ollie's stock is about as high as any non-player in amateur or professional sports, and there's sure to be a team or two who offers him the moon to make the jump to the pro ranks this summer. Hope he doesn't take it, though--his career here is just getting started, and I'm already excited to see what he does with a totally different UConn team next season.
(By the way, wish I could take credit for that great Ollie header, but due most go to ESPN's Andrew Lynch on that one, unfortunately.)
This Bird Has Flown
It would have been greedy for us to ask Aaron Harrison to pull another dagger out of his hat, to look at his three incredible triples in three separate final minutes and demand "What have you hit for us lately?"
And indeed, the fourth ace proved elusive for Aaron, who finished the game with just seven points on 3-7 shooting, his only three-pointer coming at the beginning of the half — a big three to cut the UConn lead to one (as close as UK would get in the second half) but not a shot anyone will confuse with the Louisville, Michigan or Wisconsin knockout blows.
Still, it was fitting enough that he did get a chance, sort of. With Kentucky down six and 20 seconds to go, he spotted up from behind the arc on the left wing — Harrison Avenue, essentially — and fired away.
Suddenly, your mind flashed through the possibilities: The three dropping, then Harrison stealing the in-bounds pass and hitting another one in rapid succession, Reggie style, to tie the game and send it into overtime, where he'd continue his takeover. But instead, the shot bounced harmlessly out, no miracle finishes awaiting UK this time. Once again, all things must pass.
Young Hearts, Run Free
Though the game was one Kentucky fans will likely want to forget in short order, there's at least one play from this one that they'll still be talking about in Lexington when Darius Miller is taking over the Calipari empire 20 or 30 years from now.
After a long night of getting denied at the rim, a not-easily-dissuaded James Young took it to the rack one more time against Connecticut bigs Amida Brimah and DeAndre Daniels. It seemed like a sure thing the shot would be blocked.
And it was blocked. But then it wasn't. And then this:
If Kentucky had gone on to win the game, that play would have been the most legendary tournament highlight since the Mario Chalmers three against Memphis, and James Young would have been handed the Most Outstanding Player trophy by a trembling Mark Emmett, who would then run and hide under the bleachers out of terror.
Instead, it'll have to do with being the best posterization dunk I've ever seen in person. By, like, a lot.
Blow the Whistle
In his real-talk postgame rap session, Calipari broke down the three reasons his team lost the game: They missed shots they needed to make, they clunked a bunch of free throws, and they got beat by UConn to every 50/50 ball.
Correct, absolutely, and pretty much, but there's a fourth factor I would add, which Cal is far too smart to have belabored the point over last night: They got very little help from the refs.
That might seem like a strange thing to say in a game when Kentucky shot over twice as many free throws as UConn, but there were still countless times in the second half when the whistle was blown and about 10,000 UK fans at AT&T stadium groaned in unison, and justifiably so.
Andrew Harrison got called for a foul for standing still while Ryan Boatright jumped into him going for a loose ball. Alex Poythress seemed to almost get clotheslined going for an offensive board, but it was ruled a jump. And most egregiously, this Philip Nolan flop was called an offensive foul on Poythress:
Hey, it happens. A bunch of calls didn't go Kentucky's way in this one, maybe they went their way against Michigan, or Louisville, or even KSU. But you hate to have the refs be a notable factor in this one at all, and there was a long stretch in this one where it seemed like the Wildcats just couldn't get over hump because it seemed in large part like they were playing 5-on-8. It wasn't the only difference, but it was still a big one.
Not With a Bang, But With a Pretty Noisy Pop
OK, look. This game wasn't a classic.
What this game (taken in conjunction with the games on Saturday) most reminded me of was a Game Seven after a really, really good Game Six. Nine times out of ten in a seven-game series in sports, when the sixth game is the best in the series — which it pretty often is — it usually means that the seventh game is a little bit of anticlimax.
You can't hope to top it, all you can hope is that there's some remaining leftover intensity for its follow-up, with the best case being Game Seven of last year's NBA Finals, which wasn't nearly as unforgettable as the Heat comeback in Six, but still was close throughout and had a couple truly memorable moments.
This wasn't quite that, but it was close. After a rough start and a late-first-half surge, Kentucky kept it close and kept it suspenseful up until the final minute of the second half, where things wound down surprisingly quickly.
Napier had his moments of transcendence, as did Randle, who swooped in for an up-and-under to get get past DeAndre Daniels and to the basket at one point, maybe the best move I've seen him make in the post. The Young slam is an obvious all-timer, as was whatever the hell Willie Cauley-Stein was wearing on the sidelines.
Point is, this game wasn't a ten, but it was still a pretty solid seven or eight. Considering the amount of awe-inspiring, heart-pumping, floor-slapping basketball we've been gifted over the course of the first 66 games of this tournament, asking for #67 to be of a similar caliber is a little like getting mad that Godfather III isn't as good as the first two.
It's been a great tournament, the very best kind of tournament, and its final chapter does nothing to change that impression for me. The only thing I'm sad or disappointed about following this one is that there's not a game #68 to come tomorrow night.
UK made tournament history tonight when they played seven freshmen in their lineup (including their entire first five), and they might very well make history again over the next month when up to five or six of them — as well as sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein — declare for the draft.
It's impossible to know how to evaluate where Kentucky goes from here, because it's entirely possible that the only player who saw game action tonight to return next year is defensive specialist Dominique Hawkins.
Randle and Young are gone, that's for sure.
Poythress has made a pretty clear case for his pro status, and I can't see Cauley-Stein gaining much from hanging around another year either, unless his health concerns are really that grave.
Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee would probably be wise to hang out another year and learn how to generate offense that doesn't come from directly above the cylinder, but I imagine at least one of those guys — probably Dakari — ends up jumping anyway. If Daniel Orton can be a first-round pick, anything's possible for these guys come draft night.
The really interesting case will be the Harrison Brothers. It's hard to know where their current draft stock even lies, since even though it feels like they contributed immensely to the Cats' tournament run, neither's overall stats are all that impressive, and it's not totally clear how either's skill set would translate to the pros at this moment.
It'd be great if they could get a year at UK to really lead their team from the backcourt a la Napier and Boatright, but with yet more big-hyped big men joining the fracas in Lexington next year, it's probably not going to happen. I'd bet on both declaring, and probably getting more looks in the late first round than many experts might predict.
And if you believe the rumors, the players aren't the only one with a decision to jump to the pros awaiting them. In one of the more interesting developments of Finals night, UK alum and current college analyst Rex Chapman tweeted that regardless of the game's outcome, Coach Calipari was gonezo from Kentucky, off to Los Angeles to be the Lakers' next head coach.
Calipari denied the rumor in typically eloquent fashion, saying, "The Lakers have a basketball coach. Kentucky has a basketball coach...I'm not gonna even dignify that stuff." However, Cal's reputation for less-than-total transparency when it comes to his career machinations hardly gives him the benefit of the doubt in this matter.
If UK does lose Calipari, along with all the freshman sensations of this incredible tournament run, after coming one game away from justifying The Tattoo, it's gonna be a cold and bitter summer in Lexington.
NBA Prospect Watch
You really saw the good and the bad with James Young tonight. On the one hand, he scored a team-high 20 points, with two threes and 8-9 FTs, and suffice to say his athleticism was on display throughout, especially in the dunk that will quickly become his signature moment.
But his defensive work on the perimeter and in help left much to be desired, and his shot selection became increasingly suspect in the second half, where his jumper stopped falling.
He's got all the tools to be an ideal NBA three, and you have to think he'll get there someday, but it might be a while, and a team that drafting in the high teens that wants to be good sooner than later might not feel like waiting on him.
On the other hand, Shabazz Napier.
I know there are legitimate knocks on him, but everything about his play and demeanor in this tournament screams "pro-ready" to me. Let's not forget that it's not like Kemba Walker was exactly considered like John Wall as a prospect going into the '11 tourney, and he ended up getting picked in the lottery by the Bobcats.
Even if he hasn't turned into a star for the 'Cats just yet, you can't imagine that they regret picking him, and I seriously doubt that whatever team ends up picking Napier in the low teens or 20s will end up regretting their choice, either. We'll see soon enough.
So Long, Seniors
If you feel like getting misty about Kentucky graduating Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood, I won't stop you, but I'll probably be busier mourning the college careers of Tyler Olander, Niels Giffey and of course Shabazz Napier, whose senior season surely ranks with just about any other in 21st century NCAA hoops.
See you on the other side, Shabazz.
Feature photo courtesy of Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports