The door was so wide open, you could have walked through it with a two-by-four strapped across your chest. And the Wildcats left it that way, which is why the Connecticut Huskies will be fitted with NCAA championship rings and the young UK team will kick itself forever.
Kentucky had trailed the entire national title game but three different times during the second half had cut the deficit to one. Even after Connecticut had re-opened a nine-point lead with 11:01 remaining, the Wildcats kept eating away at it, once more chopping it to a single point at 48-47 on a pair of free throws by James Young.
And then the Cats took it away from UConn’s crafty guard, Shabazz Napier and that door beckoned one more time. Aaron Harrison, Mr. Big Shot, took aim from beyond the arc, but they just weren’t falling for him on this night. The Huskies rebounded and at the other end, it was Napier who connected for a trey.
Julius Randle answered with a deuce but then Connecticut played a smooth two-man game and worked Niels Giffey for an open trey. What’s German for “bottom?”
Giffey’s three-pointer made it 54-49 with 6:19 and the momentum had swung to the darker shade of blue. It would never come back to Kentucky.
It didn’t have to be that way; the Wildcats kept working their way to the free throw line, where they put up more shots than any team in America this year. And they put up twice as many as the Huskies, plus four. UConn was 10-of-10; Kentucky finished 13-of-24, missing the front end of the bonus three times in a 90-second span with the game on the line.
“We had our chances to win,” John Calipari told CBS. “We’re missing shots, we’re missing free throws, but we hung in there,” which they did – until it was just too late.
The Wildcats had it down to four again, 56-52 with 3:47 left and the Big Blue Nation held its breath as Napier rose for another three. He missed, and Alex Poythress grabbed the rebound. Now was the time.
But at the other end, Young – saving one of his best games for the season finale, finishing with 20 points – missed a runner. The team that figured to dominate the boards couldn’t grab the rebound and the Huskies scored at the other end, stretching their lead to six with 2:47 remaining.
The Wildcats trimmed their lead to four one last time, with 1:08 remaining and then burned a foul. But that led to a curious decision to Calipari, who called timeout, allowing a re-set of the shot clock, giving the Huskies more time to play keep-away.
UConn hit two more free throws late to seal the deal, but those last-minute moves are not what cost the Cats the chance to make history. The first all-freshman starting five failed to win the title as an eight seed because it missed chance after chance at the free throw line.
“We had our chance,” Calipari said. “We just missed the shots and free throws we needed to make.”
Simple explanation, but accurate.
As expected, it was the quickness of Connecticut’s guards against Kentucky’s size inside and at first, the Huskies looked as though they were going to quickly run away.
Time and again they swiped the ball, running their offense for open looks. Julius Randle struggled with cramps. Dakari Johnson missed easy looks inside. The UK bigs were quiet as the Huskies bolted to a 33-20 lead with a little more than five minutes before the break, which is when Calipari made a move that couldn’t have been easy for him.
He went zone.
Calipari talked about it early in the season but always seemed to shy away from it, instead returning to his beloved man-to-man. But the UK coach gravitated to the option more and more as the year went on and against Connecticut, helped put his team in a position to win by making the change.
“We went zone and dried their sweat a little bit because they were the aggressor and it got them to back up a little bit and slow down and it gave us our chance,” he said. “And that’s all I can ask those guys, put us in that position.”
Which they did, forcing turnovers and chopping away at the Huskies’ lead as UConn settled for jump shots. The Wildcats trailed just 35-31 at intermission.
“I thought at halftime we were going to win the game,” Calipari said.
And they could have.
Aaron Harrison buried a trey to open the second half and Kentucky trailed by just one – but never could grab the lead and put pressure on the Huskies. Calipari blamed himself.
“As the coach, that’s your job, to put ‘em over the top, give them something extra and we didn’t give them enough to put em over the top,” he said.
Yes. And no.
Calipari had cajoled this team into the national championship game and despite the fact that the smaller Huskies had outrebounded his team, 33-32, the Wildcats were in a position to win. They just couldn’t hit from the line.
And when they look back on this game, they’ll feel the pangs of an opportunity missed, a hunger that can never be satisfied.
They were so close, to everything they’d worked for since they first gathered at the Joe Craft Center. They had survived a disappointing regular season during which they assured the Nation that there was still a happy ending out there. Fans and media alike rolled their eyes and thought about next year’s recruiting class.
But then the post-season began and a new Kentucky team, tweaks and all, came forth and prospered. Aaron Harrison strung together a series of moments the likes of which no one had ever seen in the NCAA tournament. They just didn’t fall for him, or his teammates, in the biggest game of the season.
So for the second time in four years, the season ends with a loss to Connecticut. In 2011, the Huskies eliminated the Wildcats in the Final Four and went on to win a championship. In 2014, Kentucky finishes 40 minutes short, again at the hands of the Huskies.
They didn’t finish 40-0. But the youngsters took the Big Blue Nation on one hell of a ride.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)