HOUSTON — Connecticut saw Kentucky’s DeAndre Liggins attached to star guard Kemba Walker the entire night but found some help from point guard Shabazz Napier in getting to the NCAA championship game.
Napier, a freshman point guard, scored the Huskies’ final four points, his only points of the game, including the two clinching free throws with 2.0 seconds to play Saturday night that gave UConn a 56-55 victory over the Wildcats before an NCAA Final Four record crowd of 75,421 at Reliant Stadium.
The Huskies (31-9), who at No. 3 were the highest-seeded team in the Final Four, will take on Butler, a 70-62 winner of Virginia Commonwealth earlier Saturday night, for the national championship on Monday night.
The Wildcats (29-9), winner of the East Regional as a No. 4 seed, saw their shot abandon them in the final 7 minutes, 17 seconds after they tied the game at 48 on a mid-range jumper by Doron Lamb. They didn’t score for the next 5:40, missing seven straight shots and failing to connect on the front end of a one-and-one.
The Huskies managed just three baskets during this time — a follow-up by Alex Oriakhi, and layups by Walker and Napier, whose basket gave UConn a 54-48 lead with 2:30 to play.
However, after Terrence Jones missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Walker threw a bad pass that kept the Huskies from going up by eight or nine. Liggins brought Kentucky’s drought with a three-point basket with 1:37 to play to make it a three-point game.
On Kentucky’s next trip, Knight missed a three-ball but Roscoe Smith lost the rebound out of bounds. Liggins then was fouled and one of two free throws with 49.7 seconds to play to make it 54-52.
The Huskies milked the clock on their next trip but Napier lost the ball on his dribble. Brandon Knight fell on the ball and got a timeout a split-second before Napier tied him up, giving the Wildcats a final possession with 16.7 seconds to play.
Liggins got a look from beyond the arc at the right wing but his shot went off the rim. Napier rebounded and sank both ends of a 1-and-1 with 1.7 seconds left for a four-point lead. Knight knocked down a three-pointer at the buzzer for the final margin.
Walker, who was hounded by the 6-foot-6 Liggins the entire game, shot 6 of 15 from the field and led UConn with 18 points while playing the entire 40 minutes. He also had six rebounds and seven assists.
Knight led Kentucky with 17 points but shot just 6 of 23 from the floor.
The Wildcats trailed by 10 at the half, 31-21, but roared back into the contest with a 14-2 run in the opening five minutes of the second half. Knight and Darius Miller started the run by each hitting a three-pointer, and Lamb finished it with a pair of treys.
Lamb’s second three-ball put the Wildcats ahead 35-34 with 15 minutes left. The Huskies had knocked down just one shot — a baseline jumper by Smith — in five attempts in this period.
Walker brought UConn back to life momentarily on offense, hitting a jumper from the baseline and sinking every attempt of a three-shot foul. Knight followed Walker’s foul shots with two free throws of his own with 13:51 to play to give Kentucky the lead back at 39-38, but that was the Wildcats’ last lead of the night.
The game was tied at 42, 46 and 48 before the Wildcats went through their cold snap.
Walker, who played the entire first half, did an excellent job of setting up teammates in the first half, finding them in spots where they could be successful.
The 6-foot-1 junior dealt out six assists in the first half, a period that saw the Huskies knock down nearly 52 percent of their field-goal attempts. Walker went just three of eight from the field but led UConn with nine points while Jeremy Lamb added eight.
Kentucky’s shooters were cold in the opening half, going just nine of 32 (28 percent) from the floor. The Wildcats went one of eight in the final 61/2 minutes of the opening half with three turnovers.
Terrence Jones led Kentucky at halftime with nine points. Knight connected on just three of 11 shots for seven points while Liggins, Harrellson and Darius Miller went a combined 1 for 12.
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