UConn 56, Kentucky 55: YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS


In 40 games, more than any other team in NCAA tournament history has ever played, UConn has almost done it all.

It has been the underdog, opening the season with no fanfare to speak of, unranked in the national polls and ranked a measly 10th in its own conference. It's been the feel-good comeback story, riding the emergence of a once-in-a-generation player back into the national narrative. It's been the powerhouse -- a role it knows all too well -- having improbably risen back into the top 10, mostly on the strength of one of the most improbable season-opening runs we've witnessed.

And it's been all those things all over again, having fallen from grace at the end of the regular season amidst a cloud of doubt and disillusion, just to pick itself up again and prosper, unimaginably, with the most miraculous 10-game run in program, and now NCAA, history.

Now, with one game, UConn has a chance to become the one thing it hasn't been able to be, not even in the seven seasons prior: the best in college basketball.

After a 56-55 victory that showed all the guts, glory and guffaws that have defined its season-long sojourn, all the way from a first-game clunker against an America East also-ran to Houston against one of the most storied programs in college basketball, the third-seeded Huskies will move on to the final game of the NCAA men's college basketball season, to take on Butler for the national title.

This UConn team, the same one that was pronounced dead just one (long) month ago, is going to play for the national freakin' championship.

At some point, that may sink in.

And it's only fitting that the Huskies got there by doing the one thing that has defined Jim Calhoun-coached teams since he arrived in Storrs some 24 years ago.

Kemba Walker finished the night with a robust final stat sheet, as always, ending the first game in his second trip to the Final Four with a more appropriate 18 points (on 6-for-15 shooting), seven assists and six rebounds. But even the Unstoppable Kemba was reduced to mere mortal status at times, as a combination of unfathomable fatigue -- Walker didn't even try to put on his postgame press conference facade, admitting to the media almost immediately that he was plum worn out after yet another 40 minutes of action -- and a swarming Wildcats defense limited his usual other-worldly ability to get to the bucket.

The usual ball-handling aficionados were also particularly turnover-prone in this one, coughing it up five more times than Kentucky. And while the Huskies bounced back after a lackluster first-half performance on the boards to finish with a 38-35 edge (with Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Jeremy Lamb all hauling in eight or more), the 'Cats more than doubled them up on the offensive glass (13-6) -- quite the unusual sight for a team that has lived off second chances for some time.

But what UConn did have, and what it's always had -- not just in this unparalleled postseason journey, or even throughout an 2010-11 season that featured more twists and turns than 13 roller coasters smashed together, but throughout the Huskies' entire history under Calhoun -- was its defense, which put on yet another first-class performance.

That and a little help from a particularly dreadful Kentucky performance from the field, where its 21-for-62 night only looks good when stacked beside its even more awful 4-for-12 night from the free throw line.

UConn, on the other hand, shot a better-than-normal 46.9% from the floor, but more importantly, it continued to hit its shots from the line, regardless of how few opportunities (11) it got to showcase its deft free-throwing shooting. Especially when it counted.

Shabazz Napier, a true freshman in every sense, had made just one of his seven shots from the field when he toed the charity stripe, up two, with only seconds to play. But Napier, like he had all game on the other end of the floor in holding Brandon Knight to a putrid 6-for-23 from the field, came through at the foul line, icing the game by making both shots.

There was a time earlier in the season when I expressed my deep frustrations with Shabazz, going as far as comparing him to Jerome Dyson, my least favorite player in UConn history. And Napier again showed similar issues in missing his first six shots from the field (albeit without a Shabazz-tic shot selection).

But that same freshmen that forced me to forcefully crush my hair in between my fingers is now hitting the shots that have me throwing my hands in the air in unabashed glee.

This team, and practically every single person involved in it, has just come so very, very far. So far that I can't even remember who these guys were three weeks ago, let alone three months.

And regardless of what happens on Monday against Butler, there's no way I'll ever forget them for that. This one season, this six-month-long journey that has had emotions that I didn't even know existed pouring out of me, is just one of the greatest things ever in my short sports lifetime.

But with one more win, they'll etch their names on of the greatest runs in college basketball history.

And that's something no one will forget.

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