(Reuters) – Connecticut’s experience trumped Kentucky’s youth as the Huskies prevailed with a 60-54 NCAA national championship victory on Monday that completed a turnaround for the recently penalized program.
Connecticut missed last year’s NCAA tournament, banned from the post-season after failing to meet academic standards, but they restored order this season as they surged to a second title in four years.
Senior Shabazz Napier, one of three players who were also a part of the 2011 championship team, scored 22 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, which was played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies,” Napier told reporters. “This is what happens when you ban us.”
Point guard Napier’s poise down the stretch helped overcome the tenacious young Kentucky team.
He set up DeAndre Daniels’ layup that gave Connecticut a 58-52 edge with under three minutes left before the Huskies closed it out at the free throw line.
James Young scored 20 to lead Kentucky, a program that boasts five freshmen in their starting lineup and took the college basketball tournament by storm by reaching the final.
They fell behind by 15 points in the first half but clawed their way back to trail just 35-31 at halftime.
Kentucky were never able to take the lead but hung tough down the stretch where they trailed by just four in the final minute.
The Wildcats could face the departure of players to the NBA Draft, including forward Julius Randle who is projected to be a lottery pick if he leaves college.
“It’s about each individual on the team,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“Now it’s about them, and we’ll sit down with each of them and they’ll make decisions for themselves.”
Connecticut second-year coach Kevin Ollie, a former NBA player, led his program to the title in just his first NCAA tournament.
Seventh seed Connecticut and the eighth seeded Wildcats had the highest combined seeding for any two teams to ever play for a national championship.
(Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles, editing by Nick Mulvenney)