UConn heads to NCAA final

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:06 AM ET

HOUSTON -- When is an ugly basketball game a work of art?

When you're on the side that won to advance to the NCAA championship game.

The University of Connecticut bounced the Kentucky Wildcats 56-55 in front of a raucous Final Four-record crowd of 75,421 at Reliant Stadium in Houston on Saturday night.

Following a turnover by Connecticut's Shabazz Napier, Kentucky had a chance to go for the win on a three, but DeAndre Liggins missed and Napier gained redemption by nailing two free throws at the other end before Brandon Knight nailed a meaningless three at the buzzer for Kentucky.

UConn, 31-9 but just 9-9 in its conference this season, has now won 10 straight games -- five in five memorable days to take the Big East Tournament -- and five more here in the NCAA's big dance and will take on the Butler Bulldogs for the championship on Monday.

Kentucky shot itself in the foot, making just 21-of-62 shots from the field (33.9%) and just 4-of-12 from the line.

The Wildcats' marksmanship was so bad that it canceled out dreadful 1-for-12 shooting from three for the Huskies as well as an extra five turnovers by the victors.

Kemba Walker, the star of the show throughout this winning streak and the season as a whole, led the Huskies with 18 points and seven assists and also added six rebounds. Jeremy Lamb added 12 points and nine rebounds.

It wasn't the finest performance for Walker in a season littered with gems, but it was good enough. He got to the rim at will, saved balls with his hustle, found open teammates and even chipped in defensively with a couple of steals and a big block.

His coach, Jim Calhoun, was impressed.

"Our defence eventually won it for us, along with, the best player in America," Calhoun said.

Freshman Brandon Knight led the Wildcats with 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but shot just 6-for-23, throwing up many horrible shots when the game was close.

That it was tight after a hideous first half by the Wildcats was a credit to Kentucky's resilence and a knock on the Huskies. who were outscored 34-25 in the final 20 minutes.

Kentucky senior Josh Harrellson said he and his teammates weren't ready for the pressure of the Final Four, unlike the Huskies, who made it to the final weekend two years ago.

"We're used to playing in front of large crowds at home. We sell out every game, 24,000. This was triple that," Harrellson said.

"We came out. I guess we weren't expecting everything that goes on with the Final Four, all the pressure and everything. We just came out and let it get to us. In the second half, we came out and changed that."

Indeed. Kentucky has been a resilient team all year, maturing as the season went on (UConn had hammered Big Blue 84-67 back in November) and battling back from a number of first half deficits and did so again on Saturday.

Stepping up its defence considerably -- particularly led by freshman Terrence Jones who was everywhere on the court -- Kentucky got right up on Walker and his mates, making life extremely difficult for them.

After shooting 51.9% from the field in the first half, UConnN slumped to 40.9% in the second as Jones and Liggins locked up the top UConn scoring threats.

Jones finished with 11 points, 15 rebounds and four steals.

"In the second half they came out an fought like crazy," Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

"So we had our chance to win the game. As a coach, that's all you can ask of these young people. Give us a chance to win. They gave us a chance. We had our opportunity. You know, it's disappointing, but it's been a heck of a year."

Kentucky, 29-9, wasn't supposed to be this far either and now goes home denied a chance for its first championship since 1998 -- an eternity for such a storied program.

Meanwhile, the Huskies and head coach Jim Calhoun will be the favourites to win their third championship since 1999, putting Calhoun in the company of legends. He would be the fifth man to have at least three NCAA title wins to his credit.

Walker seems to think it will happen. When asked whether he's thought about what his team has accomplished yet, Walker intoned that they weren't done yet.

"Uhm, no. Maybe it will all hit me once it's all said and done and (we're) cutting down the nets," Walker said.

ryan.wolstat@sunmedia.ca


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