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Kentucky vs. UConn preview: No underdog talk

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ARLINGTON, Texas — For a game featuring the highest combined seed total in NCAA Tournament championship game history, there sure don’t seem to be any Cinderellas left at the ball.

Seventh-seeded Connecticut vs. eighth-seeded Kentucky will be a matchup of perennial college basketball powerhouses dressed, oddly, as underdogs when the NCAA Tournament Final tips at 9:10 p.m. ET on Monday at AT&T Stadium.

“Well, I don’t think we were an eight seed and I don’t think Connecticut was a seven seed,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But that’s where they seeded us.”

Part of the reason for the seeding might be that neither the Huskies nor Wildcats made the tournament last season and each took a while to find their respective rhythms this season.

Kentucky suffered a mediocre 21-12 record and lost in the first round of the NIT after star Nerlens Noel went down with an injury in 2012-13. Meanwhile, Connecticut sat through a postseason ban for poor academic progress. So for the first time since 1966, two teams absent from the field the previous season will meet in the NCAA Tournament national championship.

But these two programs are as far away from upstarts as they can get. Kentucky has won eight national championships, the most recent in 2012. Connecticut won the 2011 title, the third in its program history.

So there was almost no underdog talk during off-day press conferences. In its place, there was plenty of discussion of championship pedigree, fabulous freshmen and the clutch shooting of Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who has hit game-winning 3-pointers in the Wildcats last three victories.

“It’s just the best feeling in the world,” Harrison said. “Of course, everyone knows when you’re a kid that you always dream about hitting the game-winning shot, so it’s just unreal to actually be able to do that in a big-time game.”

Huskies senior guard Shabazz Napier easily identified with the position Harrison has thrived in during the tournament. It is the scenario all basketball players, particularly great ones, mimic when they are alone in the gym.

“Probably, Harrison, when he was younger would be on the courts going, ‘3 … 2 … 1 … ‘ and he’d shoot the ball,” Napier said. “He’s been shooting the ball real well, and it’s been when they need it the most. Clutch … clutch shots and that just shows you how great of a competitor he is.”

Meanwhile, the Huskies have their own legacy to live up to as the 2011 Connecticut run to the national championship is still fresh on the minds of college basketball fans.

However, Napier said he would like to avoid comparisons.

“This is a totally different team,” Napier said. “We got a different coach, different players, different managers going down the line. So, I mean, it just is a totally different team. We always said that we want to do what that team did, but at the end of the day, we want to go on our own path. So far so good. We just got to get one more 40-minute game.”

Any comparisons between the 2011 Huskies and this national finalist would feature Napier in the starring role played by Kemba Walker in 2011. Walker scored 18 points in a semifinal victory over Kentucky and 16 in the national championship win over Butler to lead Connecticut in both games.

But Napier, with a huge dose of help from forward DeAndre Daniels and guard Ryan Boatright, offset such comparisons in the way they defeated Florida. Napier scored 12 points with six assists and four steals, but Daniels led the scoring charge with 20 to go along with 10 rebounds and Boatright pitched in 13 points and three assists.

“They were double-teaming Shabazz a lot,” Boatright said. “And the unselfish player that he is, he was just giving it up, making plays for his teammates and everybody stepped up.”

Just like that, the Huskies, like the Wildcats, stepped into the only position where the respective programs are comfortable: the national championship spotlight.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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NCAA News Wire

SMU outmuscles Connecticut to take AAC title

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HARTFORD, Conn. — After a crushing omission from the NCAA Tournament last season, the 20th-ranked Southern Methodist Mustangs didn’t have any worries during this year’s Selection Show. They are dancing for the first time since 1993.

SMU’s deep and talented frontcourt frustrated the Connecticut Huskies on both ends of the floor, paving the way for the team’s first conference title in 27 years with a 62-54 win in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Sunday.

SMU earned a No. 6 seed and will face No. 11 UCLA in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.

“This is big for all of us,” said senior guard Ryan Manuel, “not just the seniors but it’s as big for SMU as a school, as a basketball program. When coach (Larry) Brown got here, he wanted us to put it back on the map, and I think we made great strides in that.”

UConn (20-14), the defending national champion, came into the AAC tournament needing four wins in four days just to return to the NCAA Tournament. After falling just short of their goal, the Huskies are headed to the National Invitation Tournament.

“It’s postseason play,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “If it’s NIT or NCAA, they’re going to learn from it and they’re going to come back better from it. I’m still coaching them the way I coach them, they’re still going to play the way they’re going to play.”

SMU (27-6) was expected to receive an at-large bid if it lost Sunday, but the victory guaranteed it a spot in the NCAA Tournament field after being one of the final teams left out last season.

“Last year at this time was about as disappointing as it could get,” Brown said. “Fortunately we’ve got another opportunity, and didn’t have to get anybody to decide whether we’re worthy or not.”

As it had all weekend long, it was SMU’s frontcourt that anchored the win.

The conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, Markus Kennedy, capped off a strong weekend by leading his team with 14 points, one of four Mustangs players in double figures. He earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for his efforts. The 6-foot-10 junior and his fellow forwards helped SMU to a 43-30 advantage on the glass, with sophomore Sterling Brown pulling in 12 rebounds to lead the team.

Sophomore guard Rodney Purvis had 29 points and was the only UConn player in double figures in scoring.

“I was trying to be aggressive and take what the defense gave me,” he said.

For a while, it appeared this game would not be close. The SMU zone defense that Connecticut had carved up for 81 points just two weeks prior locked things down this time around, and the Mustangs took a 33-19 advantage into halftime by holding UConn to 5-of-24 shooting (20.8 percent) from the floor over the opening 20 minutes.

The Huskies, who made more than 53 percent from the floor and knocked down nine 3-pointers in that win, were just 2 of 13 from beyond the arc in that first half.

Usual leading scorer Ryan Boatright would manage just seven points on 1-of-12 shooting for the game.

“I’m just disappointed in my play,” he said. “I missed a lot of shots that should be easy knock-down shots for me. I didn’t show up and be the player I know I can be, I can be better than that. But my teammates fought, they played a tremendous game.”

UConn made it a game in the second half by doing similar things on the defensive end, thanks in large part to the presence of sophomore Amida Brimah. The 7-foot center, limited to just four first-half minutes because of foul trouble, played the entire second half, blocking seven shots during that time and altering numerous others.

The Huskies were able to get within five points with just over three minutes to play, but the Mustangs would hold on.

“He’s a shot blocker, so it made it a little difficult,” Manuel said about the difference Brimah made in the second half. “UConn, they have a tradition of coming back, and we knew they weren’t going to go down with a fight, so for us to stand there as a team and get the

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Alabama fires head coach Grant

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Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.

The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.

Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.

“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.

“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”

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Kentucky routs Arkansas for SEC tourney title

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No. 1-ranked Kentucky will take a perfect 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament this week after thrashing Arkansas 78-63 in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.

The conference tournament title is the 28th for Kentucky, meaning the Wildcats have won more than half of the 55 tournaments.

“This team has a lot of dog in it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Good, hard fought game. Arkansas is a ranked team, but we kind of did our thing.”

Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who was named tournament MVP, paced Kentucky with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. It was his first double-double since the Columbia game on Dec. 10.

Cauley-Stein was joined on the all-tournament team by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison of Kentucky, Michael Qualls of Arkansas and K.T. Harrell of Auburn.

Andrew Harrison, a sophomore guard, scored 15 points. Twin brother Aaron Harrison had 11 points and six assists. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis added eight points and six assists.

Guard Michael Qualls topped No. 21 Arkansas (26-8) with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Forward Bobby Portis had 13 points.

“Our guys came out and scratched and clawed,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “But at the end, I thought their depth and size were hard to overcome. If a team is going to beat them, you’ve got to make shots as well as match their energy.”

The finals pitted the top two seeds in Kentucky and Arkansas, but the Wildcats wasted little time proving that winning the regular season by five games was no fluke. Kentucky roared out to an 8-0 lead within the first two minutes, forcing Anderson to call an early timeout. Point guard Andrew Harrison scored six of the eight on a pair of 3-pointers.

“If the other team is angry, mad, hateful, jealous, the physiology of that is real close to fear,” Calipari said. “When a team comes in that way, if you can just play and that thing turns into fear, you separate yourself. Joy, the love of playing, always beats angry, mean, hateful, jealous.”

Arkansas managed to score five unanswered points after the break and eventually tied the game at 10-10 on a 3-pointer by Portis. The SEC player of the year had missed 16 of his previous 17 shots in the tournament before the basket.

The game was tied 19-19 with 10:18 to play in the first half when Kentucky caught fire, scoring 16 points in 5:05 for a 35-23 lead. Aaron Harrison scored six points during the 16-4 run on a pair of 3-pointers. He also assisted on two dunks by Cauley-Stein and a basket in the paint by sophomore center Dakari Johnson. Freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns accounted for the remaining four points.

All six Kentucky field goals during the run were accompanied by an assist, including three by Aaron Harrison. At the time, Kentucky was shooting 59 percent (13 of 22), including 5 of 6 on three-pointers.

Kentucky went on to expand the lead to 16 points by halftime, 41-25, meaning the Wildcats outscored Arkansas 22-6 over the final 10:18 of the first half.

Cauley-Stein led the way in the first half with eight points and eight rebounds. Aaron Harrison added eight points and six assists. Andrew Harrison scored six points.

Kentucky shots 51.9 percent in the first half, and 12 of the 14 baskets came via assists. The Wildcats were 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.

Arkansas, which never led, shot just 29 percent in the first half. Portis topped the Razorbacks with seven points. Arkansas had just two assists and five turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

In the second half, Arkansas managed to trim Kentucky’s lead from 16 to nine at 48-39 at the 11:55 mark. During that time, Towns picked up his fourth personal foul with 14:07 to play.

“We cut it to nine points in the second half, but we couldn’t get over the hump,” Anderson said.

From that point forward the two teams battled mostly to a draw before Kentucky pulled away late in the half.

Kentucky pushed the lead back 18 points at 6:10 thanks to an 11-2 run.

Kentucky’s largest lead of the game was 21 points, which came with 2:41 to play.

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