The improbable run of UConn completed on Monday night, as the Huskies defeated the Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 to win the 2014 NCAA Tournament. The storylines from the championship game in Dallas are as follows…
*This was the tournament of Shabazz Napier. The senior guard played 39 minutes, and knocked down 22 points, on 8-for-16 from the floor (including 4-for-9 from behind the arc). Napier’s actual impact seemed much larger, as he handled the ball exquisitely, preventing his offense from ever bogging down, dribbling in and out of the lane without fear of having his pocket picked.
Napier’s performance, both in the title game and throughout the bracket, was one of the truly signature performances in recent tournament history. This requires a little bit of context though. As well as he played, you could certainly argue that Luke Hancock was as good in the 2013 NCAA Final, where the Louisville guard won the Outstanding Player honor that Napier snared last night. Or for an entire tournament, Napier’s performance was certainly not more noteworthy than that of Anthony Davis, when he led Kentucky to the 2012 NCAA final.
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But if you look at two factors—play over an entire tournament and being the undisputed best player on a team that, by Final Four standards, was quite mediocre, than this was truly Shabazz Napier’s tournament. The last time I recall a player seeming to overshadow every game so thoroughly was 2005 when Sean May did it for North Carolina—and that was a for a #1-seeded team. The last time a player carried a true darkhorse team all the way to a title the way Napier did would have to be Danny Manning for Kansas in 1988. That’s pretty impressive company for the UConn guard to be in.
*Ryan Boatright wins Best Supporting Actor honors. Napier’s running mate in the backcourt joined him in playing exquisite defense, as they locked down the Harrison twins on the perimeter for Kentucky and prevented the Wildcats from ever having really good offensive flow. Boatright also added his own flair for the dramatic, playing the last nine minutes with a tweaked ankle. It wasn’t Isiah Thomas playing on a badly sprained ankle in the 1988 NBA Finals, or Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in the 2004 American League Championship Series, but it was a nice display of mental toughness from Boatright.
*Julius Randle is about to become a wealthy young man in the NBA draft, but the Kentucky power forward did not make his mark on the Final Four. After spending the season, and the run through the Midwest Regional, routinely grabbing double-digit rebounds, Randle only had 11 rebounds combined in the two games against Wisconsin and UConn. The result was that Kentucky had just a 34-33 rebounding advantage, a stat that would have alerted everyone to the possibility of a UConn upset, given how strong UK’s edge should have been in this game.
*James Young nearly rescued Kentucky, scoring 20 points, and delivering a big-time dunk in the second half that combined coming at a key point in the game and providing highlight film material. Young was the only Wildcat who really had a good game though. It took about four rounds longer than everyone expected, but Kentucky’s freshmen finally looked the part.
So it’s UConn that makes history on Monday night in Dallas. With four national championships since 1999, the Huskies move into a tie with both Duke and Kentucky for most crowns of the modern era of the NCAA Tournament, defined as the period when the UCLA dynasty ended following 1975. And in compressing those four titles into a 15-year window, and combining it with a dominant women’s basketball program, UConn is the pre-eminent hoops power of the young 21st century.
That brings a wrap to TheSportsNotebook’s NCAA Tournament coverage. This site will be returning to our natural focus on modern sports history, as we continue to build up the museum of sports history articles that preserve all the best of the historical period from 1976 to the present. We’ll also be looking at revamping the home page in the weeks and months ahead and turning this little corner of the web into the best sports museum on the market, and preserver of the memories of a generation.