Another year, another tournament that epitomizes the name ‘March Madness’. The seventh seeded Connecticut Huskies defeated the number eight seed Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 in one of the more improbable tournament final matchups to date, claiming their third national championship in the past ten years and fourth overall. So how did it happen that these two teams played for it all last Monday night? What transpired along the way that allowed these schools, that were close to not even making the tournament only a few weeks prior, suddenly go as far as they did? Simply put: March Madness.
It took a mere couple of hours after the first games tipped off for the first upsets to be pulled, as Dayton stunned in-state powerhouse Ohio State in a 60-59 instant classic, followed by Harvard’s upending of a Cincinnati team that had been ranked in the AP polls virtually all season. Number one overall seed and tournament favorite Florida had to fight off a surprisingly pesky Albany squad to reach the second round just as the defending champion Louisville Cardinals had to do versus Manhattan a short time later. Arizona State’s tournament hopes disappeared instantaneously on a Texas game winning shot at the buzzer, while an unheard of four overtime games in the span of one evening saw North Dakota State upend Oklahoma, San Diego State and Saint Louis having to rally to avoid being upset, and even eventual champion Connecticut being pushed to the brink by Saint Joseph’s. And this was just Thursday. Friday’s first round slate of games seemed largely predictable at first. Sure, Player of the Year candidate Marcus Smart his Oklahoma State team were bounced by Gonzaga and Stephen F. Austin dropped 5-seeded VCU in overtime, but these were all minor compared to Mercer’s monumental upset over perennial contender Duke.
Only two days after upsetting Ohio State, Dayton took to the court for Saturday’s second round and proceeded to shock the world again, this time stunning 3-seed Syracuse. Connecticut pulled away late to knock off 2-seeded Villanova, and 4-seed Michigan State nearly saw their tournament end early against Harvard. Second round action continued into Sunday, highlighted by the falls of No. 2 seeded Kansas to Stanford and undefeated 1-seed Wichita State to Kentucky. Coined as a battle of ‘Blue-chip vs. Blue-collar’, Kentucky’s team, full of young NBA potential, put an end to the historic 35-game Wichita State winning streak, ending the Shockers bid for a perfect season in a 78-76 thriller. Three-seed Iowa State survived a late push from North Carolina to hold on and advance with an 85-83 win, while the record-setting college career of All-American Doug McDermott ended in Baylor’s 85-55 rout of 3-seeded Creighton.
Favorites Florida, Arizona, and Wisconsin all secured their spots in the Elite Eight with relative ease the following Thursday night, while Dayton kept their Cinderella story going by knocking off Stanford. Friday’s games, however, all went down to the wire, beginning with Connecticut’s upset of Iowa State and Kentucky’s upset of in-state rival and defending champion Louisville. Virginia’s remarkable season came to an end in a two-point loss to Michigan State, and, in a game full of questionable officiating, 2-seeded Michigan survived Tennessee’s upset bid 73-71.
With spots in the following weekend’s Final Four on the line, the Elite Eight took to the courts on Saturday and Sunday afternoons seeking one more would that would punch their tickets down to Dallas. In the weekend’s opener, Florida was simply too much for the underdogs from Dayton, as the Gators ground their way to a 62-52 win over the Flyers. In yet another overtime thriller, the Wisconsin Badgers emerged with the 64-63 victory over an Arizona Wildcats team many thought could win it all. Behind the stellar play of point guard Shabazz Napier, Connecticut eliminated Michigan State 60-54 in the first of Sunday’s games, while Kentucky held off Michigan 75-72 to reach their second Final Four in three years.
Despite being the number one overall seed, Florida had looked shaky at times throughout the tournament and had seemed to show some signs of weakness. Connecticut must have found these weaknesses in the Gators as well, as the Huskies comfortably knocked off Florida 63-53 to advance to the national title game. Reaching the final was not nearly as simple for Kentucky, who were given all they could handle by Wisconsin. Down at halftime and for much of the second half, the Wildcats had to mount a comeback in the closing minutes of the contest to get past the Badgers, which they did thanks to freshman Aaron Harrison. Harrison, also the hero of Kentucky’s previous game versus Michigan, hit the go-ahead shot with mere seconds remaining, giving the Wildcats the 74-73 victory over Wisconsin.
All of that set up the contest played this last Monday, in which Shabazz Napier and his Connecticut Huskies defensively shut down the young Kentucky talent en route to the 60-54 victory. He finished the national title game as he had most games throughout the tournament: remarkable in every aspect of the game. The senior point guard, who chose to remain at Connecticut despite the retirement of longtime coach, Jim Calhoun, his sophomore year and the postseason ban placed upon the school last season for academic violations, finished the day with 22 points, six rebounds, and three assists, in addition to his stellar defensive play. Napier’s loyalty to the Huskies was rewarded, both with a national championship and with him earning the honor of the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. An unpredictable yet great way to end the unpredictable yet great annual event that is March Madness.