UConn ends Kentucky's magical run in title game, 60-54

Kyle Tucker

ARLINGTON, Texas – The magic finally ran out. The University of Kentucky basketball team surged back from down 15 in the first half and down nine in the second against Connecticut in Monday night's NCAA championship game, closing to within a single point both times, but for once the Wildcats couldn't break through.

The Wildcats, who never led, lost 60-54. It was a deflating end to a run that was as incredible as it was improbable. Kentucky (29-11) had come back from deficits of at least nine points and clinched victory in the final minute of four consecutive games to get here, becoming just the third No. 8 seed ever to reach the final.

After plummeting from preseason No. 1 to out of the polls, the Cats nearly ended where they started.

"Making this run proved a lot, but we didn't finish the job," shooting guard Aaron Harrison said. "It's disappointing, but the run we had is one of the greatest runs in college basketball history. Just being a part of that, you have to be somewhat happy and be proud of what you were a part of."

But the seventh-seeded Huskies (32-8) had their own Cinderella story to write. Led by All-American guard Shabazz Napier, who scored a game-high 22 points, Connecticut had an answer for every Wildcats surge. And UK's one-month supply of clutch plays ran out.

Harrison, the hero of the last three games, had a corner 3-pointer for the Cats' first lead with 7:26 to go, but he missed. After making more than half his threes in the postseason, he sank only 1 of 5 Monday. He also missed a critical free throw late and finished with just seven points.

There were tears in his and most of his teammates' eyes afterward.

"It's going to take me a little while" to appreciate the run, star Julius Randle said. "Regardless, I'm extremely proud of every single person who wore that jersey, what we accomplished, what we've been through all year and how we fought. I'm proud of them. I don't know too many people at our age who could do it."

James Young, who coach John Calipari once again correctly predicted would be UK's breakout player, did all he could. He scored 20 points and led both comeback charges. It just wasn't enough. Randle had an average night by his standards with 10 points and six rebounds and the Cats shot 39.1 percent.

Kentucky coughed up 13 turnovers that the Huskies turned into 17 points. Connecticut won the battle of the boards, which was supposed to be the Wildcats' big advantage. So UK's ninth national title – and Calipari's second – will have to wait. The Cats could not surpass Michigan's Fab Five as the first team to win it all with five starting freshmen.

But they were this close.

"Really, I can't tell you – even in that loss – how proud (I am)," Calipari said. "I can't believe what these guys got done together."

Kentucky found itself down 15 – its largest deficit of the tournament – with 5:59 remaining in the first half thanks to Napier and Ryan Boatright, who torched the Cats' defense early. Napier already had 15 points and Boatright eight at that point, driving and scoring almost at will.

Then Calipari, a man-defense disciple who experimented with zone more this season than ever in his career, switched to a 2-3 zone and Connecticut's offense stalled. After making 13 of 23 shots to start, the Huskies hit just three of their next 17.

Per usual, Kentucky surged. A 19-5 run that started in the first half – sparked by two Young 3-pointers – and ended on a 3-pointer by Aaron Harrison to start the second closed the gap to one. But the Cats couldn't take advantage of repeated opportunities to tie or take the lead, and Connecticut finally answered.

Napier's jumper with 11:01 remaining capped a 7-0 run and the Huskies led 48-39. Kentucky, naturally, roared back once more, led by Young.

He sent the crowd of 79,238 at AT&T Stadium – a title-game record – into a frenzy with a drive and ferocious left-handed slam over 7-footer Amida Brimah, who fouled him. That three-point play keyed an 8-0 run and the Cats were once again down one with 8:13 to go.

But then Harrison missed in the corner and Napier nailed a three of his own and Kentucky missed three critical free throws – including Harrison on the front end of a one-and-one – in the final 5:04. So the magic ran out and the run came to a somber end.

"You want to leave on some joy. You don't want to leave this tournament how we're about to leave it," said center Willie Cauley-Stein, who sat out his third consecutive game with an ankle injury. "It would've been so much better if we left it up on the stage, swinging our shirts and wearing our hats backwards and taking goofy pictures that are going to be with us forever. Now it's like you don't want to remember this game.

"You try to remember all the good times you had through the year, but that's going to be tough to do."

They'll try today when the Wildcats return home to a hero's welcome with a celebration of their season at Rupp Arena. It's a remarkable achievement that this team turned a lost season into one worth celebrating. After dropping three of its last four regular-season games and being written off as a failed experiment, Kentucky came up six points short of winning it all.

When the ache subsides, that is what Harrison will remember.

"Just the run we made and how we became so close so fast and just the joy that we had every close game," he said. "Just coming together and figuring out how to win. That was the best time of my life."

Kyle Tucker can be reached at (502) 582-4361. Follow him on Twitter @KyleTucker_CJ.