Connecticut’s run to the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship was nothing short of spectacular. Plus…they covered the spread every game!
For a team that tied for third place with SMU and Memphis in the newly formed American Athletic Conference, the Huskies turned on the jets at the perfect time, seeing superstar senior guard Shabazz Napier switch into an unstoppable beast mode that included insanely clutch 27-foot three-pointers and breathtaking scoop layups off drives into the heart of the defense. Napier has now secured his place in history as one of the best ever, and he got it done when it mattered most.
But it wasn’t just a one-man gang that won six straight tournament matchups for UConn. Coupling Napier’s on-court aptitude were juniors Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, and a host of other role players who did exactly what was needed at all times.
Even more impressive than the National Title is the fact that Connecticut was a perfect 6-0 against the spread (ATS) in the tournament, so we will now take a quick look at each game in order to anthologize one the most remarkable and unexpected championship journeys NCAA basketball has ever seen.
GAME #1 – March 20, 2014
(10) St. Joseph’s vs. (7) UConn
Location: Buffalo, NY
Line: UConn -5.5
Final Score: UConn 89 – St. Joseph’s 81 – OT
It was an inauspicious beginning for UConn, who trailed 40-35 at the half, with Napier struggling to find his shot. And then things looked even more discouraging when St. Joe’s was up three points with one minute left in regulation. But UConn flipped the switch and made the stops necessary to have a shot to win at the buzzer, forcing overtime and setting into motion the march to the title.
In OT, Napier went off, scoring nine of his game-high 24 points (along with eight rebounds and six assists) to lead UConn to the next round while covering the spread. Boatright chipped in with 17 points including four three-pointers, and Daniels added 18, nailing three of his own threes.
GAME #2 – March 22, 2014
(7) UConn vs. (2) Villanova
Location: Buffalo, NY
Line: Villanova -3.5
Final Score: UConn 77 – Villanova 65
In their second consecutive game against a Philadelphia-based university, UConn once again started slowly but picked up momentum in the second half to oust the Big East Champion Wildcats.
Napier again was the star for the now-underdog Huskies, overcoming first-half foul trouble to pour in 21 second-half points including three straight three-pointers that allowed Connecticut to open up a nine point lead with just six minutes remaining. Shabazz finished with a game-high 25 points as Boatright and Daniels each added 11. The Huskies amassed 52 points after halftime and pulled away down the stretch, knowing they were heading even closer to home for the Sweet Sixteen game in Madison Square Garden against Iowa State.
This is when UConn knew they had what it took to win the title.
GAME #3 – March 27, 2014
(7) UConn vs. (3) Iowa St.
Location: New York, NY
Line: Iowa St. -1
Final Score: UConn 81 – Iowa State 76
Once again, the Huskies were underdogs, a role in which they felt mighty comfortable…as this would be the second of five straight games in that position. Once again, it didn’t matter.
The Sweet Sixteen clash featured the coming out party for DeAndre Daniels. The 6-foot 9-inch forward from Los Angeles played the best game of his career and put himself on the star map by scoring 19 of his team-high 27 in the second half as UConn built a big lead and held on in front of a partisan crowd at MSG.
UConn led 36-26 at halftime and was able to count on Daniels to knock down shot after shot, as the junior hit 10 out his 15 field goal attempts while pulling down 10 rebounds. Shabazz Napier was no slouch either, scoring 19 points with five rebounds and five assists.
It was on to the Elite Eight, where the Huskies would face Michigan State, a team many sports experts had picked to win the entire tournament. But UConn had their own plans, and the strategy was working to perfection.
GAME #4 – March 29, 2014
(7) UConn vs. (4) Michigan St.
Location: New York, NY
Line: Michigan St. -5
Final Score: UConn 60 – MSU 54
In a game of runs, UConn ended up running all the way to the Final Four.
The 5-point underdog Huskies looked like the home team in front of a sea of blue as they exploded out of the gates to a 13-2 lead over Michigan State. But Sparty regrouped to take a 25-21 halftime lead that was quickly expanded to a 32-23 advantage just minutes into the second half. That’s when UConn took control.
Connecticut finished on a 37-22 run to punch their ticket to Dallas, forcing Michigan State into 16 turnovers, many of which came at crucial points of the game. Napier was on another level throughout the contest, scoring a game-high 25 while making all nine of his free throw attempts.
The entire Huskie team had ice water in their veins as they combined to make 21 of 22 FT attempts (95.5%), all of which were heartbreaking for the Spartans. Boatright and Daniels scored in double figures yet again, netting 11 and 12 points, respectively. Tough way to go for MSU, but UConn would not be denied, cutting down the Madison Square Garden nets as they moved on to the 2014 Final Four.
GAME #5 – April 5, 2014
(7) UConn vs. (1) Florida
Location: Dallas, TX
Line: Florida -6.5
Final Score: UConn 63 – Florida 53
This is where it could have gotten away from Connecticut. Florida started this game in the best of all fashions, manhandling UConn in the first 10 minutes of play en route to a 15-4 lead. Not only were the Huskies not going to cover the 6.5-point spread, they were going to get blown out.
But just as they had done in the second half while trailing Michigan State by nine points, the Huskies regrouped and flipped the game on its head, ending the first half on a 21-6 run that not only gave them a 25-22 lead, but essentially reduced Florida to a two-man team of Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young.
Connecticut didn’t just play phenomenal defense and crash the boards like gladiators, they rode the back of DeAndre Daniels in the second half, as the junior finished with game highs of 20 points and 10 rebounds. Shabazz Napier scored just 12 points, but his six assists and four steals were backbreakers for the Gators, as the nation watched the overall tournament favorite crash and burn.
In not only covering the spread but winning outright, the Huskies pulled off one of the biggest NCAA tournament surprises ever, ending a 30-game win streak that began the game after UConn had defeated Florida back on December 2nd of 2013. Sorry, Florida.
GAME #6 – April 7, 2014
(8) Kentucky vs. (7) UConn
Location: Dallas, TX
Line: Kentucky -2.5
Final Score: UConn 60 – Kentucky 54
Higher seed…still underdogs. Still didn’t matter.
Strange that there remained some doubt about UConn going into this championship game matchup with the heralded freshmen superstars of the Kentucky Wildcats. The Huskies had overcome a Florida Gators team that looked unstoppable for over three months straight while Kentucky needed a last-second miracle three pointer from Aaron Harrison to topple the Wisconsin Badgers in their Final Four contest.
Connecticut never looked like anything but the better team. The Huskies began the game on fire and withstood a frenetic run as the half came to a close, taking a 35-31 lead into the locker room. Yes, once again Shabazz Napier was the most outstanding player by a long stretch. He was a consistent force throughout the game, nailing in-your-face jumpers from three point land, driving with the ballhandling skills of a Harlem Globetrotter, and playing lock-down defense on Kentucky’s guards.
Napier finished with a game-high 22 points to go along with six rebounds, three assists, and three steals. Boatright was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, four rebounds, three assists, and three steals of his own, while Daniels scored eight and pulled down six boards.
Most telling was the temperament of the Huskies, who made all 10 of their free throw attempts, proving that they were unflappable to the very end, taking home their fourth National Championship, all since 1999, and second in four years.
Only once in six games were the Huskies point-spread favorites, but in each of their victories it was a matter of mettle and not luck.
Dan Krier is the host of Walk the Line for Impact Sports.
Photo: Yahoo! Sports