ARLINGTON, Texas — Most of the scouting reports said the same thing: Connecticut was no match for the athleticism of Kentucky and all those high-flying freshmen.
No way the Huskies stop the Wildcats inside and get out to their shooters at the same time. No chance they were going to keep them off the offensive glass. Keeping up with them on the break wasn’t going to happen.
Flexing their muscles on college basketball’s biggest stage, the Huskies showed they have a little athleticism of their own by outlasting Kentucky’s young ‘Cats 60-54 to win their second national championship in four years on Monday night.
“We’re tough-minded and tough physically,” said UConn guard Ryan Boatright, who had 14 points. “When you try to get physical with us, we get physical right back. We’re not going to back down from nobody.”
The Huskies’ main characteristic the past few years has been their resiliency, their ability to find ways to win when told they had no chance.
They did it in 2011, when Kemba Walker led a group of supposed-overachievers to the program’s third national title.
No. 4 was a tougher road: Coach Jim Calhoun retired in 2012, five players left the program and the Huskies were barred from the 2013 NCAA tournament for academic reasons.
They managed to win even without the prospect of playing in the postseason, earning 20 victories last season, their first under coach Kevin Ollie.
Given little chance of success, they turned heads with nine straight wins to open this season, then turned sour after being blown out by Louisville and losing to the Cardinals again in the American Athletic Conference final.
Even after busting brackets by reaching the championship game as a No. 7 seed, the Huskies were still underdogs, supposedly overmatched by all those genetically-gifted ‘Cats.
Instead, UConn showed off its athleticism early, jumping out to a 15-point first-half lead behind its dynamic duo of Shabazz Napier and Boatright.
Napier had 15 points by halftime and Boatright had the highlight, dribbling toward the sideline, spinning around with turn-on-a-dime 180 and scoring on a reverse layup — a move that was, yes, quite athletic.
“We wanted to keep on getting up floor and keep on running and running, and guys are not ready for that, get tired and get winded,” said Napier, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player after scoring 22 points. “We definitely were ready for that.”
Soon after that, though, Kentucky flexed its fast-twitching muscles with a flurry of steals, breakaways and 3-pointers.
That once-big lead was down to four at halftime, one after Aaron Harrison hit a 3-oointer on the first shot of the second half.
Surely now the Wildcats would race away from the Huskies.
Every time Kentucky made a run, tried to wrest the lead away, UConn counterpunched, knocking them back.
There were still some oohs and ahhs for the Wildcats, particularly when James Young soared in for a vicious tomahawk dunk that turned Amida Brimah into Amida Brim-ow!
The Huskies had a few moves of their own. Boatright scored on step-back jumpers despite turning his ankle in the second half, Napier on drives to the basket and one long 3-pointer, Niels Giffey with a couple of key offensive rebounds and a pair of 3s himself.
UConn closed it out by wearing the Wildcats out and holding its own on the board. The rebound count went UConn 34, Kentucky 33.
Conditioning has been a huge emphasis in Storrs since Calhoun was coach and remained that way once Ollie took over, practices filled with lung-burning drills.
So when the Huskies hit the gas down the closing stretch, Kentucky couldn’t keep up, sending UConn to another improbable title. The Huskies became the first team to win the tournament after going to overtime in its first game since North Carolina State made its unlikely run to a championship in 1983.
“Somebody told me we were Cinderellas and I was, like no, we’re UConn,” Ollie said. “This is what we do. We are born for this. We’re bred to cut down nets. We’re not chasing championships. Championships are chasing us.”
And the Huskies seem to be in the lead.