First off, big props to the Connecticut Huskies for winning the 2014 National Title. The elements were there for Kentucky to win, but in the end UK could not convert several opportunities in the second half to take the lead while UConn went through a 6:00 + stretch without a FG. During that time, UK went through a similar 4:00 stretch and could not take advantage of the UConn lapse.
Secondly, Kentucky could not convert at the FT line and went 13-24. Free throws were an issue all season, so it really should not be a shock that free throws were their downfall. Ryan Boatright made a jumper at the 18:55 mark of the second half and UConn took a 37-34 lead. The next UConn field goal was at the 12;18 mark when DeAndre Daniel tipped in a shot at 12:18 that that gave UConn the lead at 41-37. During this time, UK went 1-4 from line and could have taken the lead or tied despite their own FG drought.
A couple of months ago, I looked at this teams FT woes and compared them to past Calipari teams. True to form, UK’s seasons are pretty much defined as to how they hit their free throws.
2012 NCAA Champs: 72.5%
2011 Final Four: 71.0%
2014 NCAA runner-up: 67.9%
2010 Elite Eight team: 66.9%
2013 NIT team: 64.2%
The third constant of this team was their inability to get off to good starts. Kentucky fell behind 30-15 in the first half and outscored the Huskies 39-30 the rest of the game. Simply put, putting themselves in a continual hole finally came back and bit them. For some reason, this team did not respond until their backs were against the wall and after a stretch of four straight miracle finishes, this team finally ran out of gas down the stretch.
On the other hand, I could not be more proud of this team and the spirit and battle the gave. The closed this season on a magnificent run and one that was unforseen even a month ago. And even though the end result was not what we wanted, you can’t complain about a national championship runner-up.
After the game, Niels Giffey made the comment that UConn wanted the game more and Mike DeCourcy was quick to correct that statement. In the end, it just came down to too much youth for Kentucky that froze at times on college basketball’s biggest stage.
So when Giffey made the mistake of claiming about the Huskies, “I think we wanted it more,” it could be excused.
No, Kentucky wanted it equally, but believed less.
“They beat us to every 50/50 ball,” UK coach John Calipari said. “We missed some shots that we needed to make and some free throws. But these kids aren’t machines. They’re not robots. They’re not computers.”
We know what they are, of course: freshmen. Calipari played seven of them against UConn for a combined 183 minutes. There certainly was enough talent in that group to produce a ninth NCAA championship for Kentucky, but there clearly was not enough confidence.
The same Wildcats team that shot 50 percent from the field and 67 percent from the foul line two days earlier in the national semifinals saw those figures plunge to 39 percent and 54 percent on foul shots.
Now, certainly UConn’s furious defense, led by guards Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier, had much to do with Kentucky’s miserable shooting night, but one would have a hard time making a case the Huskies were D-ing up on the free throw line.
It was obvious to those who entered the arena early and saw Randle being stretched out when he should have been warming up. Something was amiss. It was more obvious when he was subbed out not even three minutes into the game.
“Because he’s a freshman and he was anxious,” Calipari said. “That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people and he ran up and down the court three times and he got winded. It’s normal.
“I was trying to get them to focus on the court, on the lines. But let me ask you, if were you 18 and you had to be in that kind of environment, and everybody you looked at was 18, how would you do? Oh, you would make every free throw and dunk every ball, especially with Boatright and Napier up under you, or somebody trying to block it, or all of a sudden the thing swings and we may lose. All of a sudden you’re 18 and you got to react to that. These kids did great.”
In the end, you must have a good amount of luck to win the national title. Sometimes this happens when the bracket clears itself out of the top ranked teams on their own as teams like Kansas and Syracuse lost early, clearing a Florida path to the Final Four. Kentucky did not get that kind of luck and had the toughest path to the Finals ever. Howver, this was an unbelievably clutch team down the stretch as five freshmen dominated games in the last four minutes until last night. John Clay tells us that Kentucky had the fight, but not the magic.
After three wondrous weeks of fantastic finishes, Kentucky came up short in the national championship game, falling 60-54 to the Connecticut Huskies in the finals of the NCAA Tournament at AT&T Stadium.
There was not enough magic at the free-throw line. UK missed 11 of its 24 shots from the foul line, while Connecticut was a perfect 10 for 10.
There was not enough magic from the three-point line. The Cats were just 5 for 16 from beyond the arc.
There were no Aaron Harrison cold-blooded treys on this night, the UK freshman missing four of his five three-point attempts.
And there will be no banner hanging in Rupp Arena. The team that seemed to have nine lives couldn’t bring home No. 9.
No shame in that. No shame at all.
This young Kentucky team that seemed so lost in late February and early March, that lost nine regular-season games, that couldn’t beat Florida, that lost at South Carolina, put together one of the greatest post-season turnarounds in the history of the program.