GAME NOTES: The 2014 national championship game comprises the two lowest seeded teams in NCAA Tournament history, as the Kentucky Wildcats tangle with the Connecticut Huskies at AT&T Stadium on Monday night.
As the No. 8 seed out of the Midwest Region, Kentucky's road to its 12th all- time national championship game appearance hasn't been an easy one. Coach John Calipari's club opened the tourney with a 56-49 win over Kansas State, and followed that with a 78-76 triumph against previously undefeated and No. 1 seed Wichita State. A rematch with intrastate rival and defending national champ Louisville resulted in a 74-69 victory, and then came a 75-72 thriller versus Michigan in the Elite Eight. The 'Cats then took on No. 2 seed Wisconsin in Saturday's Final Four, and got another clutch shot from Aaron Harrison to fall as they prevailed in a 74-73 final.
Overall, Kentucky has won seven of its last eight games, the lone loss coming in the SEC Tournament title tilt to Florida (61-60), and the Wildcats bring a national-best 116-46 NCAA Tournament record into this contest. UK, which has won 11 straight games in the Big Dance and is a remarkable 18-2 in the event under Calipari, has won eight national crowns in its history, with the latest coming in 2012 when it defeated Kansas, 67-59.
Kevin Ollie's Huskies, the No. 7 seed out of the East Region, have had an even more surprising run to this point in the tournament. UConn opened the proceedings by surviving a second-round clash with Saint Joseph's (89-81 OT), and that was followed by a third-round upset of another Philadelphia-area school in second-seeded Villanova (77-65). A Sweet 16 victory over Iowa State (81-76) came next, and the East Regional final pitted the Huskies against Michigan State, with Ollie's club pulling off another shocker in claiming a 60-54 triumph. Next up was a Final Four bout with No. 1 overall seed Florida, and UConn took that one with a 63-53 verdict.
The Huskies have enjoyed plenty of postseason success in recent years, winning the national championship in 1999, 2004 and 2011. The team owns a 57-29 record in the event all-time, spanning 31 appearances. Having played in three of the last six Final Fours, this is their fourth all-time appearance in the national championship game where they have yet to lose.
Connecticut owns a 3-1 series advantage against Kentucky, which includes a pair of victories in the NCAA Tournament. The most recent encounter took place during the 2011 Final Four, with the Huskies prevailing in a 56-55 final.
Kentucky is a very young team, starting five freshmen, including Aaron Harrison who for the second straight game drained a 3-pointer to lead his team to victory. James Young and Julius Randle paced the Wildcats against Wisconsin by netting 17 and 16 points, respectively, while Dakari Johnson was the squad's final double-digit scorer with 10 points. Aaron Harrison went just 3- of-8 from the floor to finish with only eight points, but his late-game heroics once again spurred the 'Cats on to a white-knuckle victory, and into tonight's title tilt.
Harrison spoke recently about the high his team has been on during its NCAA Tournament run.
"It has been amazing. It is everything I expected going to Kentucky; winning games and just having fun. That is what we were lacking before, and we are just really having a ball playing now."
Kentucky committed just four turnovers against the Badgers, marking the fewest turnovers in any NCAA Tournament game in school history. The Wildcats shot an even 50 percent from the field, but only attempted five 3-pointers, hitting two of them.
Randle, who has a national-best 24 double-doubles this season, was named a Third-Team All-American by the AP as he is averaging 15.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. He is the fifth UK freshman coached by Calipari to receive All-America accolades. Other double-digit scorers for the Wildcats include Young (14.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Aaron Harrison (13.9 ppg) and Andrew Harrison (10.9 ppg, 3.9 apg). Leading shot blocker Willie Cauley-Stein (106 blocks, 6.1 rpg) is expected to miss this game with an ankle injury, but reserve Alex Poythress (5.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) should be able to suit up after injuring his knee in the post-game celebration on Saturday. He scored eight points and grabbed seven boards in 29 minutes of action against the Badgers.
DeAndre Daniels tallied a game-high 20 points and 10 rebounds to lead Connecticut to its double-digit win over Florida, ending the Gators' 30-game winning streak in the process. It was also the second time this season the Huskies beat UF, doing so at home on Dec. 2, 65-64. On Saturday, Ryan Boatright scored 13 points, Shabazz Napier, who was recently named the 2014 Bob Cousy Award winner as well as a First-Team All-American, added a dozen to go with six assists, and Niels Giffey chipped in with 11 points for a UConn squad that finished with assists on half of its 24 field goals, while at the same time holding a potent Florida offense to its lowest point total of the season (tied with the 53 points it put up in a loss at Wisconsin in early November).
UConn knocked down 55.8 percent of its field goal attempts, while limiting the Gators to 38.2 percent. Florida was just 1-of-10 from beyond the arc, and was outscored in the paint, 36-24.
Coach Ollie praised his team's effort against Florida, particularly at the defensive end.
"We played great second-half defense and kind of took them out of their pick- and-roll motion offense. We started making shots with great ball movement and great body movement. They stayed together and they showed some true grit and toughness. I'm very proud of their effort."
Napier (17.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.9 apg), Daniels (13.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Boatright (12.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.4 apg) are all averaging double figures in the scoring column, helping the Huskies to a +8.7 scoring margin on the season. They have been especially tough on defense, limiting the opposition to 39.2 percent field goal efficiency, while also coming up with nearly 13 turnovers per contest.
Very few folks had predicted this championship matchup, but these are two programs that boast quite a bit of postseason success over the years. UConn can win its fourth title in the last decade and a half, while Kentucky can inch closer to national leader UCLA (11 titles) by adding its ninth here.
The Wildcats began the season as the top team in the land, and their magical run through the NCAA Tournament will assure them of the No. 1 ranking when it's all said and done.
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