By Andrew Kahn
The wildest NCAA Tournament of the modern era culminates with an 8 seed versus a 7 seed for the championship. Kentucky, a 74-73 winner over Wisconsin on Saturday, will face Connecticut, which upset Florida 64-53. According to Peter Tiernan at Bracket Science, in the 42 Tournament games involving teams with at least a four seed gap, the lower seed has won 15 times, two more than in any other Dance in the last 30 years. Outside of 1 vs. 16 and 2 vs. 15 matchups, the lower seeds have won 44 percent of the time. No matter which team cuts down the nets tonight in Dallas, very few saw it coming three weeks ago.
More Harrison heroics for UK
Aaron Harrison has made a lot of enemies during this NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin’s fans joined Michigan’s and Louisville’s as the latest to have their hopes crushed by the Kentucky shooting guard. Harrison hit the game-winning three against Wisconsin on Saturday night with 5.7 seconds left to give Kentucky a 74-73 win. It was nearly identical to the shot he hit to put the Wildcats ahead of Michigan in the Elite Eight; Harrison also hit a three with 40 seconds left in the Sweet 16 against Louisville that gave his team the lead for good. On the flip side, he’s made this Tournament run absolutely magical for Big Blue Nation. According to ESPN research, Kentucky’s combined margin of 18 points in its five Tournament wins is the lowest of any team entering the title game since the field expanded in 1985. UK is also the first team in Tournament history to win four consecutive games by five points or fewer.
UConn stuns another favorite
In taking out Florida in the first game on Saturday, UConn became the first 7 seed to reach the national championship. The Shabazz Napier/Kemba Walker comparisons are fair to a certain extent, but Napier is averaging 20.8 points in the Tournament and has been UConn’s leading scorer in three games while Walker averaged 25 through five games in the 2011 Tournament and was the high man for the Huskies in every game. Napier hasn’t had to shoulder as much of the scoring burden because of the emergence of DeAndre Daniels, who had another big game against Florida (20 points, 10 rebounds). With Connecticut’s women’s team in the finals as well, the school can win both titles in the same season 10 years after becoming the first school to do so.
Florida falls flat
Florida’s 30-game win streak was book-ended by losses to UConn. The first came on Dec. 2 in Storrs, Conn., and while the Gators did not play particularly well on offense that night, they were abysmal in Dallas. Florida shot 38 percent from the field, hit just 1 of 10 from long range, and turned it over 11 times. They had some success inside—Patric Young and Casey Prather combined for 34 points on 23 shots—but it wasn’t nearly enough. The backcourt of Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier scored all of their combined seven points in the first 11 minutes, as Florida built a 16-4 lead. Frazier, a three-point specialist, only attempted three shots. The Gators return a fair amount of talent but lose four starters that led the program to three Elite Eight appearances and this year’s Final Four.
Much like the players from Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan, the Badgers are thinking about a play or two that would have given them a win over Kentucky. With 16 seconds left in a tie game, Traevon Jackson got his defender in the air and drew a foul on a three-point attempt. His first free throw rattled out but he made the next two. After Harrison’s three and a timeout from each team, Jackson took the in-bounds pass and raced up the court, getting some separation as he pulled up for a game-winning attempt. It nearly banked in, but fell harmlessly to the floor. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan doesn’t have any regrets—Jackson has been the guy taking important shots for Wisconsin all season. Center Frank Kaminsky averaged 22 over the past three games but only scored eight against Kentucky. This was Wisconsin’s first loss outside of the Big Ten this season.
Title game preview
The way Kentucky has dominated the paint the past few games, UConn could have some trouble on the interior on Monday night. Then again, many thought UConn would have trouble inside against Michigan State and Florida as well. The matchup between the 6’6” Harrison twins and UConn’s lightning-quick guards will be interesting to watch. Offensively, the Wildcats will need to protect the ball as they’ve done for most of the Tournament. While UConn has pulled off a few upsets despite sharpshooter Niels Giffey hitting just one of his last 12 three-point attempts, it would certainly help the Huskies cause if he found his stroke. Kentucky will be going for its ninth title; Connecticut is searching for its fourth.
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local Sports who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn
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