Final Four: UConn, Kentucky to battle for NCAA title
Both programs familiar with championship success
Connecticut will not ride a one-man gang into the national championship game this time.
Shabazz Napier is still the leader, but DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright have taken their turns at the wheel.
Daniels carried UConn out of an early funk to finish with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Boatright gave the Huskies a lift at both ends in a 63-53 victory over Florida in the Final Four Saturday night
Napier was quiet early, but still finished with a steady game, finishing with 12 points and six assists.
But it was Daniels and Boatright who proved to be the difference-makers for the seventh-seeded Huskies (31-8), earning them a spot in Monday's championship game against Kentucky.
Daniels helped UConn dig out of a big early hole by scoring inside and out, and hit a couple of big shots down the stretch to prevent Florida (36-3) from rallying. He made 9 of 14 shots against the Gators, the top overall seed who had won 30 straight until Saturday night.
Comfortable in his role as Napier's sidekick, Boatright was like a bulldog all night, consistently getting inside Florida's defense and combining with Napier to hold ailing Gators star Scottie Wilbekin (cramps) to four points and one assist.
The Huskies had been down this road before: A scrappy, unheralded team making a deep NCAA tournament run behind a do-it-all guard who practically willed them to victories with big shots and big moments.
In 2011, it was Kemba Walker darting and dashing his way through the bracket while leading UConn to its third national title — all under Jim Calhoun.
Napier was a freshman on that team and learned from his mentor, becoming the carry-the-team player in Storrs many times this season.
But he hasn't done it completely alone.
Boatright has been interchangeable with Napier in the backcourt, playing shooting guard when Napier runs the point, leading the team when Napier shifts to the two spot or heads to the bench. He also turned into UConn's point-guard stopper, hounding the opposing team's floor leader into mistakes and generally making life much harder all around.
Daniels was sort of an enigma at times during the regular season for the Huskies, showing off flashes of his athleticism some games, disappearing in others.
The junior forward has been steady during the NCAA tournament, though, including a 27-point, 10-rebound game in the Sweet 16 against Iowa State.
Napier did most of the work in an early-season win over Florida, hitting a game-winning jumper at the buzzer while scoring 26 points in a one-point victory — the Gators' last loss before stringing together a 30-game win streak into the Final Four.
The Huskies had trouble with the spotlight in Jerry Jones' $1 billion sports palace, falling into holes of 7-0 and 16-4 as the Gators contained Napier, for the most part.
Daniels helped UConn shake its funk, hitting a pair of 3-pointers and sailing in for a dunk during an 11-0 run that got the Huskies back in it.
Boatright had a quiet first half before starting to find seams in Florida's defense. He got to the rim a few times without much hassle against the long Gators and was able to find open shooters when they did cut off his lanes.
Boatright also helped lead the charge against Wilbekin, adding to his cramping woes by helping Napier hound his every step.
When it was over, the Huskies again were underdogs headed to the national championship — this time with a pair of sidekicks helping the star get there.
Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73
No, this was not an instant replay, though it certainly is turning into a highlight reel Kentucky and Aaron Harrison could get used to watching over and over again.
Harrison took a pass from his twin brother, Andrew, spotted up from NBA range and watched the ball rattle in for the lead with 5.7 seconds left to lift the Wildcats over Wisconsin.
It's the third straight game the Kentucky freshman has made a 3 for the winning points in this magical ride for the Wildcats (29-10), and the second straight time the pass has come from his brother for a spot-up shot from the left center of the arc.
Traevon Jackson had a last-second shot to try to beat the Wildcats, but the desperation jumper rimmed out and once again Harrison found himself at the bottom of a dog pile at center court.
Eighth-seeded Kentucky will play seventh-seeded UConn in the final Monday — the highest seed total to play for the title since they started putting numbers by the names back in 1979.
Wisconsin (30-8) set a Final Four record by going 95 percent from the free-throw line — 19 for 20. But it was that one miss that cost the Badgers. Jackson got Andrew Harrison to jump into him while attempting a 3-pointer with 16.4 seconds left. His first free throw rimmed out, and after he made the second two, Wisconsin had a 73-71 lead and Kentucky had the ball.
Who didn't know where it was going?
Against Louisville in the regional semifinal, Aaron Harrison was spotted up in the corner when Julius Randle spotted him open. He hit the go-ahead 3 with 39.1 seconds left. Two nights later, there were 3.4 seconds on the clock and Harrison was a few steps over to the left when he took the pass from his brother. The ball clanged in and he trotted backward and pumped his hands in the air.
A few minutes later, he was hugging his mom in the stands.
James Young led Kentucky with 17 points and Randle finished with 16, but only five boards to snap his string of three straight double-doubles.
But Kentucky had an answer for Wisconsin's do-everything 7-footer, Frank Kaminsky, who was held to eight points and five rebounds.
Ben Brust and Sam Dekker had 15 each for the Badgers, who came up a game short of their first appearance in the final since 1941.
Instead, it's Kentucky going for its ninth national title and second in three years, with an almost completely rebuilt roster from 2012. It's the way coach John Calipari does it, like it or not. His star during this run: Aaron Harrison, who has first-round potential, though it won't be his final numbers in this game — eight points, three rebounds — that will impress the scouts as much as his final shot.