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NCAA Final 4 Recap - (3) Connecticut 56, (4) Kentucky 55

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The Connecticut Huskies and Kentucky Wildcats both staggered to the finish line in a game with an unusual degree of uninterrupted action. Because of the fatigue that pervaded Reliant Stadium in Saturday night’s second national semifinal, it’s only fitting that a missed shot determined Butler’s opponent in the 2011 NCAA Tournament national championship game.

It’s usually the case in competitive sports that a big play – at some point along the line – tips the scales in favor of the victor, but in this tilt between the Final Four’s two power-conference programs, that kind of play never really emerged. A sloppy, choppy, and leg-weary home stretch was dominated by deficient demonstrations of basketball performance. Kentucky delivered the final and most telling failure, and that’s why Connecticut is playing in the national title game for the third time in its history, all under the guidance of coach Jim Calhoun. Kentucky unquestionably overachieved this season under a very astute X-and-O coach, John Calipari, but the bench boss in Bluegrass country will have to saddle up with a top-tier recruiting class in 2012 if he wants to win his first national championship.

The most striking aspect of this brand-name battle was the lack of stoppages in the second half of the second half. The television timeouts built into college basketball games occur at the first dead balls after the 16-, 12-, 8-, and 4-minute marks of each half. However, this game involved no dead-ball plays for nearly 10 minutes. From the 11:57 mark of the second half until the 2:09 mark, a crowd of 75,421 did not experience one of the three-minute-long breaks that allowed CBS to pay its bills in return for its megabucks deal with the NCAA. The 2:09 TV timeout was the under-eight timeout, and the under-four timeout didn’t arrive until just 56 seconds remained in regulation. This reality of constant, unstopped action took away the legs of just about everyone on the floor, and that’s why neither team was able to score even 10 points in the final 7:19 of regulation. Kentucky, down 31-21 at halftime, used a 14-2 run at the start of the second half to make this showdown an even fight, and when these teams found themselves locked in a 48-all stalemate with 7:19 to go, they remained close not because they traded haymakers, but because they both whiffed in the attempt to land them.

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Because the prime performers in this game had no legs under their jump shots, a lot of ugly totals were posted on Saturday night, and they primarily affected a Kentucky team that rode hot three-point shooting to get to the Final Four. In the East Regional over the previous weekend, the Wildcats banged in stacks of jumpers to soar past Ohio State and North Carolina. In this clash with Connecticut, the Cats couldn’t buy a bucket from players other than Doron Lamb (5-of-10 from the field) and Terrence Jones (5-of-8 from the floor).

Brandon Knight, the assassin who hit UK’s game-winning shot against Ohio State, went 6-of-23 from the field. DeAndre Liggins, who hit the dagger against North Carolina, struggled to a 1-of-7 outing as did teammate Darius Miller. Add the fact that Kentucky hit just 4 of 12 free throws, and one found the recipe for a Big Blue letdown, just when it seemed that the college basketball brand name was on the verge of claiming its first national title since 1998. Kentucky’s season exceeded all expectations after the 2010 team fell short of the Final Four, but this close loss will cause some sleepless nights in and around Lexington.

On the other side of the divide stands the victorious Huskies from New England. They didn’t score a field goal in the final 2:29 and watched superstar Kemba Walker labor after suffering an injured ankle in a loose ball chase late in the second half. However, they held on because of their defense near the rim. Kentucky made just 12 of 35 two-point shots because big man Alex Oriakhi – with eight points and 10 rebounds – outplayed Kentucky center Josh Harrellson (four points and six boards) and bothered UK’s slashers near the rim. Oriakhi was the man who altered lots of Kentucky floaters within 10 feet of the tin and prevented the Wildcats from getting easy baskets in a game that didn’t involve very many of them. When Kentucky had a chance to win or tie in the final seconds, down 54-52, the Wildcats settled for a 24-foot three-pointer. That decision – which ended with a Liggins miss followed by two game-sealing free-throw makes by UConn’s Shabazz Napier – was in many ways a result of Oriakhi’s superiority near the basket.

Connecticut might have scored only eight points in the game’s final seven minutes, but it gave up only seven (with three of those Kentucky points coming on a meaningless three by Knight at the buzzer). The Huskies did what they had to do, and now, if they can beat Butler on Monday, they’ll own a third national championship. Not bad for the ninth-place team in the Big East Conference.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer
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