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As the horn sounded and the canons of confetti exploded, all I felt was an ache in my heart, the disappointment weighing heavy. I had had this nagging feeling all day long that it might end up this way, but I still believed just like the rest of Big Blue Nation.
My alma mater Kentucky Wildcats had just lost in the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship.
Congratulations to the UConn Huskies. They made plays when they had to and deserved to win.
As UConn’s celebration began and Kentucky headed into the locker room, I turned the channel over, feeling that sitting through the trophy presentation and the playing of “One Shining Moment” would be just a little more than I could handle at the moment.
But after reflecting for about an hour, the disappointment subsided, and I was able to fully appreciate all that this year’s group of Wildcats had achieved.
I’ll admit it.
Midway through the season, I no longer was making an effort to watch every game. If I was home, and my ESPN app alerted me that the game was on, I debated whether or not it was worth giving up my Food Network program to tune in. Almost every time, I did. But if I had to miss a UK game to cover the Carroll County Panthers or Lady Panthers, I didn’t stress over it.
The team was not yet playing together as a team. The young freshmen were still learning what it meant to play for the University of Kentucky – Everyone is gunning for you, and you better bring your ‘A’ game every night if you want to win.
But like the college basketball analysts have said, head coach John Calipari made the famous “tweak” that made all the difference. No one except the players and coaches know what exactly the “tweak” was, but it helped propel the team from a 19-point regular season loss to Florida to losing by just one point to the same Gator squad in the SEC championship.
The No. 8-seed Wildcats defied the odds, beating No. 9-seed Kansas St. in the second round and knocking off the previously undefeated No. 1-seed Wichita St. They took down archrival and 2013 NCAA national champion No. 4-seed Louisville to move on to the Elite Eight, where they eliminated No. 2-seed Michigan on a 3-point dagger by Aaron Harrison. The dynamic freshman with ice water in his veins did it again in the Final Four, knocking down another game-winning trey to beat Wisconsin, the No. 2-seed in the West, to help his team earn a spot in the championship.
Despite their performance in the SEC tournament, no one expected Kentucky to achieve what they did. The Midwest bracket had, by far, the toughest road to North Texas, and Kentucky trailed big in almost all of their games. But the young Wildcats did not give up. They battled back like the pressure did not affect them and did what it took to win.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough magic left in the tank against the Huskies.
It almost seemed like fate for UConn to win.
Shabazz Napier was a role player on the 2011 NCAA Championship team as a freshman, and head coach Kevin Ollie was an assistant coach under his mentor, Jim Calhoun. Now a senior, Napier is the best point guard in the country looking to bookend his career with championship trophies, and Ollie is in his first year as head coach. UConn won the 2011 national championship at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, just 264 miles down the road from Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.
It all just felt too perfect. As much as Kentucky wanted to be that big-program Cinderella team, it was UConn that made the glass slipper fit.
The enormity of the championship seemed to swallow both teams at times, but it was one of the most basic aspects of the game that made the difference in the end: free throws. In a time when spectacular dunks and 3-pointers grab a lot of the attention, free throws have proved time and time again to be the deciding factor in close games. Monday night, the Wildcats hit just 13-24 from the charity stripe.
Carroll County hoop stars: Make sure you put in the time at the free throw line. They are valuable points much too important to give away.
But even though the Wildcats never led, they never gave up. They still believed they could make one more miraculous comeback and left everything they had on the court.
I am so proud of this group of young men and how they persevered. Of course, I would love to see all of them return to make another run for the 2015 crown, but even if that is not in the cards, I will remain grateful to them for how they represented my alma mater and made this tournament one of the most exciting I have ever witnessed.
Kristin Beck is the news and sports editor for The News-Democrat and resides in Carrollton.