ARLINGTON, Texas — The University of Connecticut, a basketball program left behind in conference realignment and ineligible for the NCAA tournament just one year ago due to academic sanctions, won its fourth and most improbable national title on Monday, beating Kentucky 60-54 at AT&T Stadium.
Getting a clutch performance from senior guard Shabazz Napier and a lot of help from the Wildcats at the free-throw line, the Huskies were left standing at the end of a physical, ugly game and secured a number of historic markers, including becoming the first No. 7 seed to win it all. Ryan Boatright added 14 points.
"You're looking at the hungry Huskies," Napier told the crowd and TV audience. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you ban us."
Kevin Ollie, who took over the program from Jim Calhoun right before the 2012-13 season, became the second coach ever to win a national title in his first NCAA tournament (Steve Fisher, 1989).
And in doing so, Connecticut gave the American Athletic Conference, which was forced to split from the Big East in a messy divorce 15 months ago, a national title in its first year of existence.
"I thought this conference was good and if it held together, we could do great things," said AAC commissioner Mike Aresco. "It helps you attract kids, helps you attract coaches."
Asked whether he felt like the AAC got the last laugh this season, Aresco said, "No, not all all. What I have is a feeling of quiet satisfaction."
Ollie also became the 13th coach to win a title at his alma mater and the fourth African-American coach to lead a team to an NCAA Division I men's basketball championship, joining Georgetown's John Thompson, Arkansas' Nolan Richardson and Kentucky's Tubby Smith. "We always did it together and always played as a group," Ollie said.
About missing the tournament last year, Ollie said: "I told you the last will be the first. Last year we couldn't get in the tournament. But we kept believing."
Though Connecticut never trailed, Kentucky threatened to come back a number of times. Ultimately, though, the Wildcats — who made their own improbable journey to the championship game as a No. 8 seed — couldn't overcome shooting 13-of-24 from the foul line.
Napier, a senior who was on the 2011 UConn national championship team, scored 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting. He made a three-pointer with 6:50 left from the top of the key that seemed to halt Kentucky's momentum. Then DeAndre Daniels, who struggled all game and made just 4-of-14 field goals, gave Connecticut a 58-52 lead with 2:45 left on a hesitation move under the basket that put the Huskies in position to close out the title.
It was a disappointing end for the Wildcats, who began the season with a No. 1 ranking and fans dreaming of a highly regarded freshman class leading the team to a perfect record. They struggled through the regular season, but began to play extremely well in the NCAA tournament.
"We had our chances to win," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "We just didn't have enough."