Back in early January, when the Connecticut basketball team was struggling and the team was starting to unravel a bit, coach Kevin Ollie took his squad for an unplanned visit during a road trip to play SMU in Dallas.
To AT&T Stadium — site of the 2014 NCAA Final Four. He wanted his players to see what could be if only they would believe in themselves and each other.
Three months later, the Huskies returned to AT&T Stadium, and on Monday night they left as national champions.
UConn jumped to an early lead on Kentucky, then withstood a furious rally for a 60-54 victory in front of 79,238, the largest crowd to see a college basketball championship game. UConn never trailed in the matchup.
"We had faith in each other, and we went out there and did what we needed to do," said UConn senior guard Shabazz Napier, who had a game-high 22 points and six rebounds and was named the tournament's most outstanding player.
The Huskies also became the first No. 7 seed to win a national championship.
"It feels good," said Ollie, in his second season. "To do this with this championship with this team is just a great feeling. They've been amazing all year. It was a wonderful feeling to hold that trophy up and do it the right way."
It is the fourth national title for the Huskies, who were ineligible for the tournament last season because of NCAA sanctions.
In the end, a group of veterans trumped a young Kentucky team, which was trying to become the first to win a national title starting five freshman. Napier played 39 minutes. Senior Niels Giffey had 10 points and five rebounds. Junior guard Ryan Boatright had 14 points and four rebounds, and he played the final 7:54 after injuring his ankle. The Huskies took a timeout, but Boatright refused to leave the game.
"I've got a lot of heart, and I wasn't coming out," Boatright said. "My teammates really helped, but we put in too much work all year for me to give up on an ankle sprain. This moment was too big."
After battling from behind all game, Kentucky pulled within 48-47 with 8:13 left on two free throws by freshman forward James Young, who led a second-half comeback by scoring 10 of the Wildcats' 23 second-half points, including their final basket with 1:08 remaining.
"We really fought," Young said. "No matter what, no matter how much we were down, we just kept our heads up and just kept fighting for each other."
With his team down 56-50, Kentucky's Alex Poythress scored, then missed a subsequent free throw with 3:48 left. UConn's DeAndre Daniels scored with 2:48 remaining, then Lasan Kromah hit two free throws with 25.1 seconds left to seal the win. UConn was 10-of-10 from the free-throw line, Kentucky was 13-of-24.
UConn ran the shot clock down multiple times during the final three minutes, but Kentucky coach John Calipari said he had no intention to foul.
"We couldn't foul late," he said. "I know people are asking, 'Why didn't you foul?' Because they're not missing," he said. "Those guards never miss. Our best chance was a two-possession game, stop and make a basket, try to steal. And we had our chance. We just missed the shots and free throws we needed to make."
UConn led 35-31 at halftime after leading by 15 earlier.
Both teams played tenacious second-half defense. The teams combined for 12 points in the first eight minutes of the half. Kentucky's freshman guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who had carried the team through the tournament, went a combined 2-of-9 from the field in the second half. UConn held Aaron Harrison, who had three winning shots in the tournament, to seven points and four rebounds.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]