Coach Kevin Ollie walked to the Connecticut fans’ corner, raised his hands, stretched his fingers and hid his thumb.
Four, as in the number of national championships for the Huskies since 1999.
Connecticut brilliantly slowed the pace of the NCAA final down the stretch and in the process cooled off the hot Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 on Monday night.
“One word,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “Unbelievable.”
Connecticut played every late possession to near perfection, bleeding the clock and usually getting points.
The biggest one came fromBoatright, who splashed a 10-foot floater as the shot buzzer sounded, making it 56-50 with 4:09 remaining. Only minutes earlier, Boatright had gone to the bench with a slight ankle sprain, but he was determined to fight through.
The Wildcats answered with an Alex Poythress follow slam, but he missed a free throw that would have cut it to three, and after DeAndre Daniels scored inside for the Huskies, Kentucky never got the ball back with a chance to tie or take the lead.
The final two minutes passed and Kentucky Coach John Calipari decided not to put Connecticut at the line. This allowed the Huskies to burn the clock and keep the ball in the hands of senior point guard Shabazz Napier.
He did wonders with it.
Napier, voted the Final Four’s most outstanding player, was a maestro throughout the tournament, and especially on Monday. His 22 points led the way. He set the early tone with three-point shooting and controlled the action late.
When Kentucky’s James Young started an 8-0 run with an acrobatic slam for three-point play, it appeared the Wildcats were in a position to take its first lead.
But Napier banged in a three-pointer.
“Dagger,” Calipari said.
Teammate Niels Giffey followed with a corner three, and at the moment it looked like Connecticut could pull it off. This from a team that lost to Louisville by 33 points late in the season.
But in the second year under Ollie, the former UConn player and hand-picked successor for three-time national champion Jim Calhoun, the Huskies were never deterred.
They were underdogs in the national title game to a team that seemed even more destined.
Youth made Kentucky the story entering the game. When the starting five took the floor, it marked the second time in NCAA Tournament history that an all-freshman squad opened a championship game. It first happened in 1992 when Michigan faced Duke.
This was an eighth-seeded team that had lost 10 games during the season.
But the inexperience hadn’t been a factor in the tournament as the Wildcats took down Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin, reaching the final for the second time in three years.
And in the previous four games, the Wildcats won them in clutch fashion. Guard Aaron Harrison was the hero in the previous three with a stretch of late-moment game-winning shots unparalleled in the tournament’s history.
Connecticut had been equally, if less spectacularly, impressive. The Huskies grounded Iowa State and Michigan State in the regional and took out top-ranked Florida in the national semifinal, becoming the first No. 7 seed to reach the national championship game.
Kentucky’s pattern of falling behind by a deep margin and rallying back before halftime repeated itself.
This time the margin was the Wildcats’ greatest of the tournament, 15 points.
But when Julius Randle hit a bucket with 2.9 seconds left, the margin was down to four.
Could the Wildcats roar back again?
One reason they couldn’t was free-throw shooting. Kentucky missed three straight in a late stretch, including the front end of a bonus. They went 13 for 24 for the game.
Against a Connecticut that was making the most of every possession, every miss dropped Kentucky further in the hole until finally the Wildcats ran out of time.
And the Huskies’ celebration was on.