The guys who stuck around at UConn ended up with the last laugh and a pretty good prize to go with it: The national title.
Shabazz Napier turned in another all-court masterpiece Monday night to lift the Huskies to a 60-54 win over Kentucky's freshmen and bring home a championship hardly anyone saw coming.
"You're looking at the hungry Huskies," Napier told the crowd and TV audience as confetti rained down. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you banned us."
The senior guard had 22 points, six rebounds and three assists, and his partner in defensive lock-down, Ryan Boatright, finished with 14 points.
The victory comes only a short year after the Huskies were barred from March Madness because of grades problems. That stoked a fire no one could put out in 2014.
Napier kneeled down and put his forehead to the court for a long while after the buzzer sounded. He was wiping back tears when he cut down the net.
"I see my guys enjoying it," Napier said. "That's the most special feeling ever."
UConn (32-8) never trailed in the final. The Huskies led by as many as 15 in the first half and watched the Wildcats (29-11) trim the deficit to one with 8:13 left. But Aaron Harrison, who pulled out wins with clutch 3-pointers in Kentucky's last three games, missed a 3 from the left corner that would've given the Cats the lead. Kentucky never got that close again.
One key difference in a six-point loss: Kentucky's 11 missed free throws — a flashback of sorts for coach John Calipari, whose Memphis team blew a late lead against Kansas after missing multiple free throws in the 2008 final. The Wildcats went 13 for 24. UConn went 10 for 10, including Lasan Kromah's two to seal the game with 25.1 seconds left.
"We had our chances to win," Calipari said. "We're missing shots, we're missing free throws. We just didn't have enough."
Calipari said he decided not to foul at the end "because they're not missing."
In all, Calipari's One and Doners got outdone by a more fundamentally sound, more-seasoned group that came into this tournament a seventh-seeded afterthought but walked away with the program's fourth national title since 1999. They were the highest seed to win it all since Rollie Massimino's eighth-seeded Villanova squad in 1985.
Napier and Boatright now go down with Kemba Walker, Emeka Okafor, Rip Hamilton, Ray Allen and all those other UConn greats. This adds to the school's titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011.
"When they say Ray, Rip, Ben, Emeka, Kemba — they'll soon say Shabazz," said their former coach, Jim Calhoun, who was in the crowd along with former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and a father-and-son team whose dance to the "Happy" song got huge applause when played on the big screen at AT&T Stadium.
The crowd was cheering for UConn at the end.
A short year ago, the Huskies were preparing for their first season in the new American Athletic Conference after the Big East Catholic schools decided to move on and none of the so-called power conferences wanted them. Calhoun, who built the program, left because of health problems. And most damaging — the NCAA ban triggered an exodus of five key players to the NBA or other schools.
Napier stuck around. So did Boatright. And Calhoun's replacement, Kevin Ollie, figured out how to make their grit, court sense and loyalty pay off.
"It's not about going to the next level, it's not about going to the pros, but playing for your university, playing for your teammates," Niels Giffey said. "And I'm so proud of all the guys on this team that stuck with this team."
They were one step ahead of Kentucky all night, holding off furious rally after furious rally.
Kentucky's biggest push started when James Young (20 points, seven rebounds) posterized Amida Brimah with a monster dunk to start a three-point play and trigger an 8-0 run.
In the middle of that, Boatright, who shut down Harrison's twin brother, Andrew, most of the night, twisted his left ankle while receiving an innocuous-looking pass from Napier. He called a timeout. Got it worked on and came back out.
"I've got a lot of heart and I wasn't coming out," Boatright said. "We put in too much work all year for me to give up on an ankle sprain."
Napier and Giffey made 3s on UConn's two possessions after the timeout, and that one-point lead was back up to five — fairly comfortable by this tight, taut, buzzer-beating tournament's standards.
The big question in Kentucky is what will happen to all those freshmen. Julius Randle (10 points, six rebounds) is a lottery pick if he leaves for the NBA. Young and the Harrison brothers could be first-rounders. The big question is whether they'll want to leave on this note.
"I think all these kids are coming back, so I think we should be good," Calipari deadpanned, getting big laughs.
He called his group the most coachable bunch he's ever had. They were preseason No. 1, a huge disappointment through much of this season. They were seeded an uninspiring eighth for the tournament and came on strong in time for a run to the final.
But they got outdone by a team on a different sort of mission — a team led by Napier, who stuck with the program even though he knew the 2012-13 season was for nothing but fun.
But what fun 2013-14 turned out to be.
Napier was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player and he earned it on both ends of the court, keeping a hand in Aaron Harrison's face most of the night and holding him to a 3-for-7, seven-point, no-damage night.
He could also shoot it a bit — including a 3-pointer in the first half when UConn was having trouble dissecting the Kentucky zone. The shot came from about 30 feet, right in front of the edge of the Final Four logo at Center Court, or, as Dick Vitale put it: "He shot that one from Fort Worth."
They felt it back in Storrs, where they could be celebrating another title shortly. The UConn women play for the national title Tuesday.
If they win, it will be the first sweep of the titles since 2004. The last school to do it: UConn, of course.