I said it prior to Saturday and I’ll say it again: Kentucky is the best team of the Final Four. It’s even more apparent after watching whatever it was that passed for basketball Monday night, in the championship game between Connecticut and Butler at Reliant Arena in Houston.
Granted, both teams played excellent, bare-knuckles defense. But the rims from those baskets, minus the nets that now belong to UConn, need to be melted down to scrap-iron and buried in the same landfill that holds the rims from the 1984 semi-final game in Seattle.
You know the one I mean.
How many of you (those of you who were around back then) thought about UK vs. Georgetown in the ’84 Final Four, while you were watching Butler miss layups, floaters, leaners, jumpers, one-handers, jump-hooks – any and all manner of motion that would propel the ball toward the basket?
I got cold chills flashing back to that three-for-33 performance in the second half of Kentucky’s loss to the Hoyas, who would go on to beat Virginia for the NCAA championship.
In hindsight we should have known, after Lexington’s Shelvin Mack missed his first two shots, both layups.
UConn wasn’t much better and for that, give some credit to the Bulldogs. Butler did a good job on Kemba Walker, rotating defenders and using its big men to force Walker to alter his path to the basket on several occasions. You could see the difference a couple of times when the Huskies cleared rebounds and Walker led the fast break, shooting in transition. But it didn’t happen much.
And as I sat there watching this freak-show unfold, I kept thinking about another UK game – the one played last Saturday, and the razor-thin margin of error that sent the Wildcats home, minus their eighth national championship.
You can play it back in your mind all you want, in several directions. Yes, Brandon Knight had a horrible shooting performance. Sure, the two quick fouls on Josh Harrellson changed the complexion of the game. Deandre Liggins’ three-point attempt at the end? Not a bad shot, but I agree with HIM – he should have driven the basketball.
But in the end, I can’t shake loose of one thought: Free throws. Make 50 percent (that’s six of 12, two better than the four-of-12 effort UK posted) and you win. This was a team that hit 71 percent of its free throws for the season. Terrence Jones, absolutely heroic otherwise (11 points, 15 rebounds, four steals) was 0-for-5 at the line, where he hit 64 percent for the year.
Do that, and you have a slot in the finale, against a Butler team that came out tight and only got worse.
Connecticut’s size advantage was evident from the first possession. Mack had to hurry to get off both layups, because of the length of the Huskies’ defenders. They harassed the Bulldogs all night, limiting rugged post man Matt Howard to a 1-for-13 shooting performance. Butler frantically worked the perimeter, trying to catch UConn out of position defensively and, when it did, whichever Bulldog was open hurried to get off his shot, lest the longer, more athletic Husky defender recover and alter the shot. The very fact that Butler’s shooters felt compelled to rush their jumpers made Connecticut’s defense all that much more effective.
That’s why I stubbornly cling to the notion that it should have been the Wildcats bringing home the nets. They showed on Saturday they’re every bit as athletic as the Huskies, and better able than the Bulldogs to create their own shots.
In the early minutes of the second half, Kentucky moved the ball as well as it has all year, the Wildcats finding first Knight, then Darius Miller for threes. Harrellson’s offensive rebound and putback 75 seconds later were obvious reminders of what UK missed from him as he languished on the bench in the first half.
Of course, Harrellson was fouled on the play, and missed the free throw.
Still, the big man’s dunk with 14:25 to play gave the Cats a 37-35 lead. They had hit six of their first eight shots in the second half, after missing 23 of 32 in the first period. They looked like the team that had stunned Ohio State and upset North Carolina.
But then, the ice age returned. The Wildcats missed seven of their next eight, and STILL, UConn had just a four-point lead, at 46-42. Butler managed to hang around the same way on Monday night. But neither the ‘Dogs nor the Cats could take advantage.
Butler never could put together a “mini-run,” the way Kentucky did. From the 8:15 to 7:15 marks in the second half, UK hit three straight buckets, countering a jumper by Walker and tying the game at 48. It was as close as the Wildcats would be for the rest of the night.
The Cats missed their next seven shots and yet, Connecticut couldn’t pull away, as they did on Monday. Against Butler, the Huskies managed to open a six-point lead midway through the second half. It may as well have been 60.
But the Cats battled to within two and had Liggins’ potential go-ahead trey in the air with two seconds left. It banged off the rim, same as 52 of Butler’s 64 attempts. That’s 18 percent - a sad ending to an incredible story, written once again by the boy king, Brad Stevens, and the mid-major that could.
All the way back to Indianapolis, and beyond, the Bulldogs no doubt were telling themselves it should have been them, it COULD have been them, if only a few more of their shots would have fallen.
And they’re right – maybe it could have. But, it says here, it SHOULD have been Kentucky, the best of the Final Four.
Trouble is, we’ve run out of season.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)