One of the best parts of achieving something in sports is the jewelry that comes along with it. Championship rings are always fantastic and the Wisconsin Badgers received their own rings this week for advancing to the 2014 Final Four.
As you can see, a lot of excitement on the faces of Wisconsin’s players, but as a favorite to make it back to the Final Four this season, veterans like Josh Gasser are hoping to add some more jewelry with another run this season:
Three weeks ago, UConn won its second championship in four years with a 60-54 win over Kentucky in an unlikely National Title game matchup.
It was somewhat of a storybook ending for UConn. The Huskies were barred from postseason play in 2013, the same year Kevin Ollie took over the program from Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.
And that’s where the 16-minute video begins. Because two years later, for those like Shabazz Napier, who stayed with the program through thick and thin, their loyalty was rewarded with another incredible March run.
In 2004, Jim Calhoun led the Huskies to their second championship in six seasons with a National Title win over Georgia Tech in San Antonio. More than 500 miles away in New Orleans, the women’s team defeated rival Tennessee to cap off a three-peat for Geno Auriemma’s fifth championship.
A decade later, the men’s and women’s basketball teams have been crowned champions in the same season once again. Thirteen times a UConn basketball team has played for a National Title and thirteen times a UConn basketball team has ended up cutting down the nets.
Their seasons may have finished similarly, but different paths were taken for their respective titles.
On March 15, the men’s team lost to Louisville, the defending national champion, by 33 points. UConn limped into the NCAA tournament as a No.7 seed, and Final Four hopes were almost dashed in the Round of 64 if it weren’t for a come-from-behind overtime win over Saint Joseph’s. After upsetting Villanova in the Round of 32, UConn found itself in a familiar setting, inside Madison Square Garden. The success the Huskies had inside The World’s Most Famous Arena in the past as a member of the Big East was replicated, as they upended Iowa State and Michigan State, a title favorite, to advance to the Final Four.
UConn overcame a slow start against top-ranked Florida to advance to Monday’s final against Kentucky. The Huskies never trailed in the National Title game, but they had to hold off the Wildcats in a wire-to-wire championship victory.
Remarkable considering Kevin Ollie took over a program two years ago with an APR score which barred UConn from postseason play in 2013. But Shabazz Napier, who remained in Storrs when others left for greener pastures, had that loyalty rewarded, winning his second title in four years. One more than the man he struggled to replace, but ultimately out did.
While the men went on an improbable run this March, the women went on an expected trip back to the Final Four after Auriemma and his Huskies captured their eighth title in 2013.
For the fifth time under Auriemma, the Hall of Fame coach, UConn ran the table, matching the 40-0 mark set by Brittney Griner’s Baylor team in 2012. What made the victory sweeter for Auriemma is that it came at the hands of rival Muffet McGraw, who led her undefeated Fighting Irish into Nashville for the women’s final.
Tuesday night’s final began like the men’s championship game the previous the evening. The UConn offense got out to quick start before the opposition cut into the lead with a late run before heading into the break.
In the second half, the inside presence of Stefanie Dolson and Breanna Stewart began to assert their dominance over the Notre Dame frontline playing without Natalie Achonwa. While it was the UConn front court that proved to be the overwhelming factor for the women’s championship matchup, it was the defensive pressure of the men’s experienced back court that prevailed over the size and strength of Kentucky.
Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright hounded the Aaron and Andrew Harrison, taking away ball screens and forcing the 6-foot-6 duo to 6-of-16 shooting.
The free three woes played a role in Kentucky’s loss, but it was the limited second-chance opportunities for the Wildcats that kept them from ever taking the lead. The UConn men outrebounded Kentucky by one, not 23 like the women did the next night against their opponent. Though narrowly winning the battle on the boards, UConn held Kentucky to just seven second-chance points from 10 offensive rebounds.
The roads were clearly different, but ended in places both coaches anticipated on reaching.
“Somebody told me we were Cinderellas, and I was like, ‘No, we’re UConn,'” Kevin Ollie said on Monday night. “I mean this is what we do. We are born for this. We’re bred to cut down nets. We’re not chasing championships, championships are chasing us.”
A decade later, Storrs, Conn. has reaffirmed its place as the home of college basketball.
Kentucky’s season began with high expectations after John Calipari assembled “the greatest recruiting class in history” with ridiculous chatter of 40-0 as a possibility.
In March, Kentucky lost to top-ranked Florida for the second and third time, upping the loss total to 10 heading into the NCAA tournament.
Selection Sunday ended with Kentucky slotted as the No. 8 seed in the bracket’s most difficult region. The Wildcats went on an unlikely run through the likes of undefeated Wichita State, rival Louisville and last year’s national runner-up Michigan.
An 11-loss season wasn’t what many anticipated in the preseason, but a Final Four appearance also didn’t seem likely when Kentucky lost to South Carolina on March 1.
“This was an unbelievable journey that none of us staff or players will ever forget,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari told the crowd at Rupp Arena.
An up-and-down season ended with both the thrills of a tournament run and the disappointment of a championship loss for Kentucky. Calipari recapped the 2013-2014 season in front of Big Blue Nation on Tuesday.
The Huskies of Honor is a tremendous honor for any UConn basketball player. Typically a player’s number isn’t hung from the walls of Gampel Pavilion until several seasons after their career at UConn is over.
That changed when Kemba Walker led the Huskies to 11 straight wins in March, guiding UConn to the program’s third National Title in 2011. A day later, Walker’s No. 15 was presented alongside some of Connecticut’s legendary players and coaches.