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April 8, 2014

UConn stops UK's magical Madness, 60-54

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It was confetti falling from the ceiling at AT&T Stadium, but for Aaron Harrison it might as well have been a cold rain.

The Kentucky freshman had rushed into the arms of waiting teammates so many times in this NCAA Tournament, you could lose count. And here he was watching Connecticut celebrate that way, watching the Huskies revel in the national championship they won by beating the Wildcats 60-54 Monday night.

"It's a long walk," Harrison said later. "You just get the feeling that that could have been you. Just kind of wanting to start over. But life doesn't give you second chances."

Kentucky's season is proof, though, that it does.

Praised in the preseason and left for dead by March, the Wildcats got a second chance and made magic this past month. Against Connecticut, they finally ran out of it.

The clutch shots that had fallen didn't. The game-changing run stalled.

"Until the horn blows, I'm thinking we're winning this game," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "If I'm to get my team to believe that, then I have to believe it. I'm telling you, every game I've ever coached, we're winning this game and we'll figure out a way."

And so often, they had.

There were the comebacks against Wichita State and Louisville. There were the thrillers against Michigan and Wisconsin, undecided until Harrison made key three-pointers in the final seconds.

This time it was Connecticut's Shabazz Napier with the magic touch. The senior guard scored 22 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished out six assists. And with his team leading 48-47 with 6:52 to play, he buried a three-pointer that stretched the lead back to four. UK never got closer.

"He made a dagger play," Calipari said.

It cut Kentucky to its heart.

"For it to end like that, it's hard," said forward Julius Randle, who finished with 10 points, six rebounds and four assists. "You see all the work put in. You see all the work that your brothers put in. We made an unbelievable run. Just for it to end like this, it hurts."

Even in the immediate aftermath of their season ending, though, some Cats had perspective.

They recognized the accomplishment of making it to the NCAA title game with five freshman starters and the historic nature of the wins that got them there. They understood that they'd set a legacy by rallying from a dismal midseason stretch to make a deep tournament run.

"This loss, it hurts really bad," guard Andrew Harrison said. "But it's nothing compared to what we accomplished."

In time, that may be even easier to remember.

On Monday, it was hard not to think about the missed free throws -- Kentucky was 13 of 24 from the line, UConn 10 for 10 -- or the offensive rebounds that got away. It was hard not to wonder how the Huskies had outrebounded the Cats and held them to seven second-chance points.

"Give them the credit," Randle said. "They did a good job of stopping us."

In the process, they stopped a run that won't soon be forgotten.

On Tuesday afternoon at Rupp Arena, Kentucky will celebrate this season, and it will be one to remember. UK can hang a Final Four banner, and they'll talk for years about this freshman-dominated team and its turnaround.

But Connecticut did the celebrating on Monday.

And the Wildcats' long walk through it will be memorable, too.

"You don't want to leave this tournament how we're about to leave it," said sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, who missed his third straight game with an ankle injury. "It would have been so much better if we'd left it up on that stage, swinging our shirts and wearing our hats backwards and taking goofy pictures that are going to be with us forever. Now it's like, we'll remember this game, and you try to remember all the good times you had through the year. That's going to be tough to do."


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