By Victoria Sun, Winchester Sun
ARLINGTON – Kentucky’s unexpected and improbable run to the national championship game ended with tears and hugs in a solemn locker room.
As confetti swirled around AT&T stadium in celebration of UConn’s 60-54 victory against UK on Monday night, Kentucky players embraced each other and comforted each other as the realization that their tumultuous season was over had finally ended sunk in.
In front of luminaries including former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the Huskies (32-8) pounced on the Wildcats (29-11) and never let up en route to their fourth NCAA title and second in four seasons.
“I’m proud of these guys, and we had our chances to win,” Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari said. “That game stayed a one-point game. We’re missing shots, we’re missing free throws and we hung in there. These kids never gave up.”
The Wildcats missed 11 free throws and admittedly exhibited some jitters early on while competing in their third Final Four in the last four seasons. UK became the first team since Michigan in 1992 to start five freshmen.
UK freshman point guard Andrew Harrison, who finished with eight points, five assists and four turnovers, thought a combination of nerves and UConn’s defensive effort led to the Wildcats’ demise. Kentucky’s 54 points scored was a season low.
“Playing the national championship game your freshman year, it’s pretty tough,” Harrison said quietly. “But at the same time, they played great defense.”
The Wildcats had no answer for UConn guard Shabazz Napier, who showed why he won the Bob Cousy Award earlier in the day and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Napier had 22 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Usually reliable workhorse Julius Randle had a quiet 10 points, six rebounds, and four assists, but didn’t have the dominating performance that the Wildcats had come to expect from the Southeastern Conference’s freshman of the year.
About midway through the second half, Randle had a senior moment of the geriatric variety. After UConn guard Ryan Boatright made two free throws, Randle gripped the ball with both hands, raised both arms in the air, then turned and hurled the ball into the stands thinking he was throwing to a teammate. That turnover led to dynamic Huskies guard Shabazz Napier hitting another signature pull-up jumper to extend UConn’s lead to 48-39.
As Randle was driven to the post-game press conference on a golf cart, he buried his face in both hands.
“It’s tough, it hurts, man,” Randle said quietly. “I’m proud of everybody. How we fought, it was just unbelievable.”
A year after failing to make the NCAA Tournament last season, there were high expectations for the young Wildcats, due to their impressive freshmen class. But the season was full of highs and lows as Calipari tried to get his inexperienced team to mature.
The Wildcats spent most of the season defending themselves as fans and the media took verbal jabs at them. With seven McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster, they were an extremely talented, inconsistent, and sometimes frustrating bunch, until something clicked during the Southeastern Conference tournament that helped propel them to the championship game.
“It’s been up and down, but at the same time, we fought,” Harrison said. “No one even thought we’d be here.
“The stuff we fought through and the scrutiny we took, it was amazing (that we made it) and this one definitely hurt us, but it’s a bigger picture than that.”
The future of the team is not a subject any of the distraught Wildcats were in the mood to discuss. Several Wildcats, including Randle, and James Young (20 points and seven rebounds) are projected to be first round picks, if they decide to leave school and declare themselves eligible for the NBA Draft. Both were named to the All-Final Four Team.
UK players declined to speculate on what players would return or said they hadn’t given it much thought yet.
“That’s the farthest thing from my mind right now,” Randle said. “My dream was to win a national championship. That was my only focus.”
Calipari will have a season-ending meeting with each player to assess his situation and discuss future plans.
With the tears flowing after the game, Harrison made it a point to express to his teammates how grateful he was for the ride.
“I just walked around and told everybody I love them,” Harrison said. “It’s been the best experience of my life. “