National Sports Headlines from NBC Sports

MLB names reliever awards after Rivera, Hoffman

NEW YORK (AP) Now that they're no longer receiving awards, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman are getting their names on some.

Major League Baseball said Wednesday it created a "Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award" and a "Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award."

Rivera, a 13-time All-Star, retired after last season with a record 652 saves. Hoffman, a seven-time All-Star, retired after the 2010 season and is second with 601 saves. Both spent their entire careers in one league.

The new honors replaces MLB's "Delivery Man of the Year Award," which was given to one winner annually from 2005-13. It will be voted on by nine retired relievers, with Rivera and Hoffman joined by Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter along with Lee Smith, John Franco and Billy Wagner.

Canucks make Linden president of hockey operations

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) Former Canucks captain Trevor Linden has been hired as Vancouver's president of hockey operations.

The announcement came a day after the Canucks fired president and general manager Mike Gillis.

Linden played 19 seasons in the NHL, mostly with the Canucks, and led them to the 1994 Stanley Cup finals, where Vancouver lost in seven games to the New York Rangers.

He scored 375 goals and added 492 assists in 1,382 career NHL games.

Linden says he is "passionate about the Canucks and I want to win - just like our fans."

Nets finish off sweep of Heat, win at buzzer

MIAMI (AP) Joe Johnson scored 19 points, Mason Plumlee was credited with a block on LeBron James' dunk attempt in the final seconds, and the Brooklyn Nets finished off a four-game season sweep of Miami by beating the Heat 88-87 on Tuesday night.

It was the third time Brooklyn beat Miami by a single point; the other win came in double-overtime.

Marcus Thornton scored 16 points and Paul Pierce added 14 for the Nets, who became the first team in the last two years to sweep the Heat. Miami was the only team in the league to beat every team last season and would have repeated that feat with a win Tuesday.

James had 29 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for the Heat, who remained a half-game ahead of Indiana, and one in the loss column, in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Chris Bosh scored 12 and Norris Cole added 10 for Miami.

Up by one, Johnson took a jumper that was way off with 11 seconds left. Miami controlled the rebound and the ball was sent to James, who attacked the rim and went up for a dunk that Plumlee contested.

The Heat argued for a foul, none was called and time expired.

Thornton's steal and layup with 3:27 left put the Nets up one, before James answered seconds later with a dunk, part of a final quarter that featured seven lead changes.

Deron Williams missed a pair of free throws with 2:17 left and Brooklyn down a point, but Plumlee blocked Bosh's layup on the next Miami possession - and the Nets seemed to get a shot of needed adrenalin. Thornton hit a 3 from the right corner to put the Nets on top, Johnson followed with a beat-the-shot-clock score from the lane, and Brooklyn was suddenly up four with 1:01 left.

A mere 5 1/2 seconds later, the lead was down to one.

James drove past Johnson and got fouled by Pierce on the way to a three-point play, getting Miami within 86-85. The teams alternated baskets on their next possessions, but the Nets wouldn't trail again.

Miami's Dwyane Wade missed his seventh straight game while dealing with a hamstring issue - his 26th absence overall this season for the Heat, who were also without Greg Oden (back spasms) and Udonis Haslem (stomach virus).

Brooklyn decided to play without Kevin Garnett, who is expected to be in the lineup when the Nets visit Orlando on Wednesday. Garnett missed 19 games while dealing with back issues, then returned to the Nets' lineup on Saturday and played 13 minutes against Philadelphia. Andray Blatche (illness) was also held out by the Nets.

For the second straight game, the Heat got into an early double-digit deficit at home - trailing 26-14 after the first period and seeing the hole reach 13 early in the second quarter. Fueled by 18 second-quarter points by reserves, Miami chipped away and outscored Brooklyn 17-9 over the final 5:40 of the half, facing only a 44-43 deficit at the break.

Toney Douglas' 3-pointer midway through the third put Miami on top for the first time since the early going - with that, the back-and-forth was officially underway. Neither team led by more than four the rest of the way, and James had the last two baskets of the third to put Miami up 65-62 heading into the final period.

NOTES: Alonzo Mourning, the Heat player-turned-executive whose induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame was announced Monday, received a video tribute and loud ovation during the first half. ... U.S. Olympic speed skater Eddy Alvarez, a Miami native and silver medalist from the Sochi Games, was part of the sellout crowd. ... James said the scrutiny Indiana is facing now doesn't match what Miami dealt with in his first season with the Heat. That, James said, "will never compare to any other team." ... The teams wore their "Name Collection" jerseys, with nicknames on the back instead of surnames.

Selig hints Aaron still baseball's home-run king

ATLANTA (AP) Hank Aaron is still the home run king to many. Even baseball commissioner Bud Selig has a difficult time seeing it any other way.

Aaron was honored before the Braves game against the New York Mets on Tuesday night with a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of his 715th home run, the one that pushed him past Babe Ruth and gave him the major league record.

Aaron finished with 755 home runs, but was eventually passed on the career list by Barry Bonds, whose career was tarnished by steroids allegations. Bonds has 762 homers, but many baseball fans don't accept that number and stand by Aaron as the true record-holder.

Speaking with reporters after the ceremony, Selig was asked about Aaron being called the true home run king.

"I'm always in a sensitive spot there, but I've said that myself and I'll just leave it at that," Selig said.

During the ceremony Braves chairman Terry McGuirk said Aaron "set the home-run record the old-fashioned way" and added "You will always be the home run king of all time."

Retired Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren earned a big ovation when he said Aaron is "still recognized as baseball's true home run king."

Aaron, 80, was given a standing ovation in the ceremony before the game. Aaron broke Ruth's record with his homer on April 8, 1974, off the Dodgers' Al Downing.

Downing attended the ceremony and threw out the first pitch. Some of Aaron's 1974 teammates returned, including Dusty Baker, who was on-deck when the record-breaking homer was hit, Ralph Garr, Phil Niekro, Ron Reed, Marty Perez and Tom House, who caught the homer in the bullpen.

Aaron thanked fans "for all your kindness all these many years." Aaron, recovering from recent hip-replacement surgery, used a walker.

"The game of baseball was a way that I relaxed myself each year that I went on the field for 23 years," Aaron said. "I gave baseball everything that I had, everything, every ounce of my ability to play the game I tried to play to make you the fans appreciate me more. Thank you."

Selig, Aaron's longtime friend, established the Hank Aaron Award in 1999 to honor the top hitter in each league.

He called Aaron's 715th homer "the most famous and treasured record in American sports."

Selig said Aaron was a worthy successor to Ruth as home-run king "because he is the living embodiment of the American spirit. ... Baseball is forever our national pastime because of people like Henry Aaron."

The Braves wore their 1970s era white-and-blue uniforms, complete with small "a" caps, in tribute to Aaron. The Braves are wearing an Aaron 40th anniversary patch on their uniform sleeves this season.

The numbers "715" were painted on the outfield grass, stretching from left-center to right-center.

The Braves unveiled Aaron jerseys from other college and professional teams in the Atlanta area. Falcons owner Arthur Blank, former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley and former Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry were among those who stood with their teams' jerseys adorned with Aaron's name and No. 44.

The outfield was filled with fans, each wearing blue 44 Braves jerseys and each holding baseball-shaped signs bearing numbers from 1 to 715.

Batkid back in San Francisco, throws first pitch

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) The Batkid stole hearts in San Francisco once more, with thousands cheering the young boy at the ballpark for the Giants home opener.

Miles Scott, who has undergone treatment for leukemia and saved the city as his favorite superhero through Make-A-Wish Foundation in November, threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Diamondbacks-Giants game Tuesday.

He helped steer the Batmobile into the stadium and raised his right hand into the air out the window, walked hand in hand to the mound with pitcher Matt Cain and even received a fist bump from left fielder Michael Morse from across the dugout rail.

His form wasn't bad, either. The boy kicked his right leg back and fired an on-target fastball to Cain as thousands in the sellout crowd of 42,166 roared.

NBA rumors swirl around Ky. coach John Calipari

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky's talented freshmen shed a shaky regular season and then showed why the Wildcats were picked No. 1 in the preseason with an impressive run to the NCAA championship game.

After falling short in a 60-54 loss to Connecticut, the annual question is who will leave Kentucky for the NBA, including John Calipari.

The fifth-year Kentucky coach is used to inquiries, but former Kentucky player Rex Chapman turned up the heat Monday by tweeting that Calipari coaching the Los Angeles Lakers was a "done deal." While Calipari said later that he was happy with the Wildcats and planned to be back at Kentucky, he didn't completely dismiss the scenario.

It wouldn't be a surprise if Kentucky (29-11) loses forward Julius Randle. Several of his young teammates also are going to mull over their pro prospects.

But the tweet by Chapman, a former Wildcat, shifted some of the scrutiny toward Calipari, whose name frequently pops up about NBA jobs. He has laughed off many of them, but the newest seemed to strike a nerve.

Calipari didn't address the NBA issue during Tuesday's brief celebration before 3,500 at Rupp Arena in which the runner-up banner hung from the rafters. But he responded to Chapman's initial comment after the game by saying, "The Lakers have a basketball coach. Kentucky has a basketball coach. I got the best job in the country. I'm not even going to dignify that stuff."

Chapman's tweet came just before the Wildcats faced the Huskies in pursuit of their ninth national title, and some Kentucky fans blamed him Tuesday on radio talk shows for creating a distraction. Chapman backtracked on his comment Tuesday, saying in a radio interview that he believed Calipari would stay at Kentucky.

As for the players, the question is which of Kentucky's six high-school All-American recruits will pursue their pro dreams after raising their stock in the tournament.

Randle appears to be the biggest NBA lock after arriving with projections of being a lottery pick. He boosted his profile by averaging 15 points and 10.4 rebounds, and posting 24 double-doubles despite being double- and triple-teamed.

Kentucky's starting backcourt might also enter the draft pool following their performances in the NCAA tournament.

Twins Aaron Harrison - whose back-to-back, game-winning 3-pointers helped put the Wildcats into the final - and Andrew have been listed on some draft boards as first- or second-round picks. James Young is another possibility because of his outside shooting; he led Kentucky with 20 points against UConn.

Sophomore seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein - who was sidelined for the final three games by an ankle injury - and forward Alex Poythress are also considered prospects. Freshmen post players Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are expected back.

With all of his players, Calipari said he will discuss their futures soon enough.

"Now that the season's over, it is about the players," the coach said. "They sacrificed. They surrendered to each other now, for our team and our program and our school.

"We'll sit down with each of them and they will make decisions for themselves."

Whatever the Wildcats decide, they can look back on an intriguing season in which they began No. 1 with projections of even going unbeaten before enduring a series of growing pains. In fact, a stretch-run swoon had knocked Kentucky out of the Top 25 just before the Southeastern Conference tournament, when the light went on and it began chasing a lofty goal of winning a second title in three years.

After a one-point loss to eventual NCAA tournament top seed Florida in the SEC championship, the Wildcats caught fire in the tournament behind Aaron Harrison's clutch NBA-range 3-pointers that beat defending champion Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Ill-timed turnovers and 11 missed free throws ultimately cost Kentucky against UConn, but the Wildcats took solace in maturing enough to get to a place that seemed unlikely a month ago. It remains to be seen whether players or Calipari stick around for another shot with another highly regarded group of recruits, but they're happy to have at least fulfilled some of those expectations.

"We have been through a lot this season," Randle said afterward. "How we kept fighting and were able to make this run just says a lot about our guys. I just that it ended like this."

Braun hits 3 homers, Brewers beat Phillies 10-4

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Ryan Braun hit three home runs and tied a franchise record with seven RBIs to lead the Milwaukee Brewers over Philadelphia 10-4 Tuesday, spoiling the Phillies' home opener.

Coming off a three-game sweep of the World Series champion Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, the Brewers won their fourth straight game and improved to 5-2.

Kyle Lohse (1-1) allowed three runs and seven hits, walking five.

Braun connected twice off Kyle Kendrick (0-1), snapping the longest homerless drought of his career. The 2011 NL MVP came in with only three singles in 20 at-bats this season.

But Braun, who is bothered by a right thumb injury, felt just fine, as usual, in Philadelphia. He has 10 homers and 21 RBIs in 20 career games at Citizens Bank Park.

Canucks fire GM Gillis after missing playoffs

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) The Vancouver Canucks fired president and general manager Mike Gillis on Tuesday, a day after being eliminated from playoff contention.

Gillis took over as general manager from the fired Dave Nonis after the 2007-08 season. The Canucks advanced to the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals under Gillis before losing to Boston, and since then the team has been in a steady decline.

"The Vancouver Canucks had success under Mike's leadership, and we nearly reached our ultimate goal; but I believe we have reached a point where a change in leadership and new voice is needed," team owner Francesco Aquilini said in a release.

The Canucks lost in the first round of the playoffs for two straight seasons before missing the post-season entirely for the first time since 2008.

Vancouver fans appeared fed up with the team's downturn and chanted for Gillis to be fired as the Canucks lost 3-0 to the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night.

Gillis signed a contract extension after the 2011-12 season. There were indications last week he and first-year head coach John Tortorella weren't communicating. Gillis seemed to criticize Tortorella's style in a radio interview, saying he wanted the team to get back to the type of game that got it to the 2011 Cup finals.

"I want us to play upbeat, puck possession, move the puck quickly, force teams into mistakes, high-transition game," Gillis said in an interview with the Team 1040. "I think we have the personnel to do it. If we don't have the personnel to do it, they'll be changed.

"That's my vision, that's how I believe you are going to win in the Western Conference and the National Hockey League. If you look at the top teams in the West, there isn't a lot that separates any of the teams in the West, but the top teams play that way. That's the way we played."

Tortorella has preached a defense-first, puck-pressure, shot-blocking style since taking charge of the club in the offseason after Alain Vigneault was fired following the 2013 first-round playoff exit. That has been Tortorella's coaching style in previous stints with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers.

Apart from this season's product on the ice, Gillis had also been roundly criticized for his poor draft record, questionable free-agent signings and trades, and the handling of the Roberto Luongo saga.

After the veteran goalie was unseated in the Vancouver crease by Cory Schneider, Gillis tried to move Luongo and his massive contract - one that Gillis himself had negotiated. When Luongo couldn't be dealt, Schneider was sent to the New Jersey Devils at last summer's draft.

In another surprising twist, Luongo was then traded back to the Florida Panthers last month following Tortorella's decision to start backup Eddie Lack in the Heritage Classic game.

In just over eight months, a position that had been the Canucks' strength became a major question mark.

Infante's jaw sprained, not broken by Bell pitch

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Kansas City's Omar Infante has a sprained jaw and needed six stitches to close a cut opened when he was hit by a Heath Bell pitch.

Infante was injured during the seventh inning of Monday's 4-2 win over Tampa Bay and was sent to the University of Kansas Medical Center.

The Royals said Tuesday that the second baseman did not sustain a concussion. The team said he will be evaluated over the following two days and he was not likely to miss a significant amount of playing time.

"It was great news, no fracture," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "I just saw him in the training room. He looks good. He just ate something, so he was able to chew. He was smiling. He was talking. It could have been a lot worse, so we really dodged a bullet there."

Infante left Detroit during the offseason and signed a $30.25 million, four-year contract with the Royals.

Danny Valencia replaced Infante at second base on Tuesday, leaving the Royals had no backup infielder. Yost said the Royals aren't sure whether they will make any roster moves before a six-game trip to Minnesota and Houston that starts Friday.

Yost said for the rest of the Tampa Bay series he can rely on backup catcher Brett Hayes and left fielder Alex Gordon as emergency infielders.

NFL, players meet about workplace atmosphere

NEW YORK (AP) NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and union leader DeMaurice Smith met Tuesday to discuss the league's workplace environment.

In light of the bullying scandal last season involving the Dolphins' Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, both sides want to improve the working atmosphere. Goodell last month targeted this meeting as a chance to create open lines of discussion about the issue.

On hand along with Goodell on the league side were new NFL director of football operations Troy Vincent; Giants owner John Mara; Packers president Mark Murphy; Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome; Panthers coach Ron Rivera; assistant coaches Hue Jackson and Rod Marinelli; and several league executives.

Also involved Tuesday were new NFLPA President Eric Winston and several other union executives and players.

"The discussions between owners and players about a professional workplace were positive," NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said in an email to The Associated Press. "We will continue to work together to set the highest workplace standards for everyone in the business of football."

The Dolphins were plagued by a bullying scandal after tackle Martin left the team. NFL investigators found that guard Incognito and two teammates engaged in persistent harassment directed at Martin, another offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. Incognito was suspended for the final eight games of the season and no longer is with the Dolphins. Martin was traded to San Francisco.

At the center of the discussions was the role of coaches in setting standards of behavior and helping every member of a team to understand and be accountable for living up to those standards.

"It was a productive discussion about how we can work together to ensure that the conduct of all NFL personnel consistently meets the highest standards on and off the football field," the league said in an email to the AP.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher spoke at the league meetings in Orlando in March about also cleaning up players' actions on the field. He specifically targeted reducing taunting, and also spoke about bullying.

"It's a behavior change and we feel it starts with leadership and that's leadership with the head coach, the owner or the general manager, but also leadership on your football team," Fisher said. "Those are the areas we are going to focus on this spring.

"If the college athlete sees something on the weekends that the pro athletes is doing, they, most of the time, are going to act the same way. And not that we're allowing it to happen, but the incidents are increasing and we want to reduce them. Colleges are adamant about sportsmanship on the field and celebrations and taunting and things like that. They don't tolerate it. Now, sometimes they may not see it, but we've got to get to that point where we can't tolerate it."


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Without Tiger, the Masters has an open look

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) Adam Scott has gone to majors for more than a decade looking at Tiger Woods as the player to beat.

Now that Woods is out of the Masters for the first time in his career that "player to beat" could be just about anyone.

Scott is the defending champion and can go to No. 1 in the world this week. Las Vegas lists Scott and Rory McIlroy as the betting favorites, narrowly ahead of Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Matt Kuchar.

McIlroy has never finished in the top 10 at the Masters, which is a little misleading. He had a four-shot lead entering the final round in 2011 and shot an 80. McIlroy looked at the tee times for Thursday and predicted that 70 players could win the green jacket.

NC State's TJ Warren to enter NBA draft

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) North Carolina State sophomore T.J. Warren is taking his high-scoring game to the NBA.

In a statement released by the school Tuesday, the Atlantic Coast Conference's player of the year said he had "a fun ride" but was ready to enter the NBA draft.

"Playing in the NBA has been a lifelong dream of mine, and playing at N.C. State has prepared me well to achieve my dream," Warren said.

Behind Warren, the Wolfpack went from being picked to finish 10th in the ACC to reaching the NCAA tournament for the third straight year and beating Xavier in the First Four.

The 6-foot-8 forward led the league at 24.9 points per game - good for third nationally - while shooting a league-best 52.5 percent. He also led the team in rebounding at 7.1 per game.

Warren closed the regular season with 41 points at Pittsburgh and a career-high 42 points against Boston College, making him the first ACC player to go for 40 in consecutive games since December 1990 and only the seventh overall. He was the first N.C. State player to do it since program great David Thompson in December 1974 and the first ACC player to do it in consecutive league games since 1957.

Warren set school single-season records with 871 points and 31 20-point games.

"I truly believe he was the best offensive player in the nation this year, and although he is a great scorer, his rebounding and defensive improvement are often underappreciated," Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said in a statement. "I am excited for T.J. and want the very best for him. I believe in him and will miss having him in our program."

A year earlier, Warren averaged about 12 points and shot an ACC-best 62 percent in a supporting role behind C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell and Scott Wood. He mulled an NBA jump last season but returned to a leading role after the departures of those upperclassmen as well as the transfer of freshman Rodney Purvis to Connecticut.

Warren dropped about 20 pounds to around 215 this year to better handle the load for an inexperienced team.

"I told him last year ... work on your game, get your mind right and come on back and show what you can do," his father Tony Warren said last week. "And he did that."

The elder Warren, a former Wolfpack player, had said he wanted his son to take his time and "be 100 percent sure" on his decision even as he expected him to be a top-20 pick.

N.C. State will also lose fifth-year senior Jordan Vandenberg and sophomore point guard Tyler Lewis, who said last week he would transfer to Butler. But N.C. State (22-14) returns second-leading scorer Ralston Turner (10.5 points) and adds a top-20 recruiting class featuring power forward Abdul-Malik Abu, and twin wings Caleb and Cody Martin.

Shabazz Napier delivers on title promise

ARLINGTON, Tex. -- With a little bit less than eight minutes left in Monday night’s national championship game, Shabazz Napier walked on the court after a timeout and looked into the crowd of Connecticut fans and family and alumni. At that moment, Connecticut led Kentucky by only one point. At that moment, the Huskies seemed to finally be wearing down against the bigger, stronger, more hyped Kentucky team. And that Kentucky team seemed to be gaining strength.

In other words, it seemed like a tense moment. Only it wasn’t for Shabazz Napier.

He looked at the section of the Connecticut crowd -- looked at Ray Allen, various parents of players, the University of Connecticut president -- and he smiled a little bit. Then pursed his lips a little, and nodded slowly. There was absolutely no mistaking the meaning. This was the universal symbol for three words.

We’ve. Got. This.

What? How could they have this? Kentucky had come back time and again in this game. The Wildcats trailed by 15 in the first half. Came back. They had trailed by nine just three minutes earlier. They came back.

And even before this game, Kentucky had been on this magical tournament run with Aaron Harrison’s last-second shots flying in like planes at LaGuardia. And now it was a one-point game, and those Wildcat freshmen had their feet under them, and Kentucky coach John Calipari would remember thinking, ‘We’re going to win,” and that huge Kentucky throng of fans that swarmed Dallas were in all-out believe mode.

Shabazz Napier looked at the fans. He shrugged. He smiled. He nodded with the surest look he had.

We’ve. Got. This.

And, the craziest part of all: He was right.

* * *

Every now and again, you will hear coaches say that the NCAA tournament is won by guard play. That has always seemed to me one of those true but incomplete lines like “defense wins championships.” Yes. That can be true. But sometimes offense wins championships. Sometimes great big man play wins national championships.

But it is obviously true: Guard play CAN win championships if it is inspired enough. Here in Texas we saw inspired two guards -- Napier and Ryan Boatright -- command the stage not just like great basketball players but the way the greatest performers do, they commanded the stage like Richard Pryor did, like Bruce Springsteen does or Jennifer Lawrence. They were mesmerizing. You couldn’t take your eyes off of them.

“Oh boy,” the guy next to me said Monday night late in the game as Boatright dribbled with the shot clock running down and the game on the line. “This is going to be good.”

And it was good.

By now, all college basketball fans know about the brilliance of Shabazz Napier. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and he might not be that tall. He looks younger and slighter than just about anybody else on the floor, as if someone’s little brother had run on the court. He makes up for this with a conquering confidence that seems so real you can almost see it, you can almost touch it, you can’t help but wonder it fits into the overhead bin on planes.

“He has a swagger about him,” Kentucky coach John Calipari would say after the game, and you could tell that coming from Calipari there is no higher praise. People with Shabazz Napier’s confidence are hard to face because they are the true believers. They don’t seem aware of their weaknesses, it never occurs to them that losing is a possibility; they do not respond to pressure the way other people do.

Put it this way: After Connecticut lost to Louisville at home by a dozen back in January, their fourth loss in the previous nine games, Napier gathered around the team and do you know what he said to his struggling team?

Napier: “’I said ‘Keep your head up. At the end of the day,' I said, ‘We're going to be the team holding up that trophy. I promise you that.’ ”

He PROMISED them that. As he told that story, Boatright was sitting next to him and he just nodded. Yep. That’s what he said all right.

As a player, Napier has great quickness and a great shot and a special kind of intensity. But more than anything, he just has a deep faith that overpowers people. After he made his nodding guarantee to the Connecticut crowd, he promptly turned the ball over. Well, that wasn’t good. But nothing shakes his confidence. Nothing. Next time down he made a long 3-pointer that busted the spirit of those Kentucky players and silenced the Kentucky crowd.

See? We’ve. Got. This.

Boatright is even shorter than Napier and yet, if possible, his game is more physical. Boatright can actually be the most intimidating player on the floor, even if he is barely 6-feet tall. That’s because he’s a defensive whirlwind. He attacks the ball-handler, smells out passing lanes, can pickpocket the basketball from any angle at any moment. What’s scarier for any player than to just have the ball taken away from them? In the national semifinal against Florida, not only did Boatright stifle the Gators star guard Scottie Wilbekin, he left Wilbekin withered and baffled, like a tourist who had his luggage taken at the airport.

And Monday night, it was like that again only this time against the bigger and more-hyped guards of Kentucky. The Wildcats could not get into their offense for much of the game. They looked constantly winded. “To get to the rim, you’ve got to get past us,” Boatright says. “So just because you’re big, that’s not enough. You’ve got to be quick. You’ve got to get low. We’re in your way.”

Napier concurs: “We have been playing against tall people our entire life. We’re both short. We kind of understand how to maneuver our bodies.”

There was some talk afterward about how Kentucky was able to cut the Connecticut lead from 13 to 4 in the last four minutes of the first half, and how this might have been due to their zone defense or the fact they final made a couple of 3-pointers. But I suspect it had a lot to do with the fact that Boatright wasn’t on the floor -- he had picked up his second foul with, yes, four minutes left in the half.  And for a time Kentucky’s offense flowed. That’s how much of a difference he made.

Boatright’s offense is not quite as bold as Napier’s but it does seem out of the same mold -- lots of quickness and the guts to challenge much bigger men. With about four minutes left in the game and Connecticut leading by just four, as mentioned, Boatright got the ball as the shot clock was winding down. He made three or four lightning quick moves and then stepped back and shot a high jump shot. The ball swished through.

“Huge play,” Calipari would say. “Boatright’s big shot, huge shot, they’re dying there and he makes a step back. ... Give them all the credit. They beat us.”

That shot put Connecticut up six and, oddly, Kentucky never really came close to winning after that. The last four minutes seemed to disappear in an instant, mostly because Calipari did not want his team to foul. What was the point of fouling? Connecticut was legendary from the free throw line the whole tournament -- they shot 88 percent from the free throw line as a team for THE WHOLE TOURNAMENT. Monday they were 10 for 10. “They weren’t going to miss,” Calipari said, and so he let the clock run and hoped for the best. It didn’t work out.

After the game ended, and Connecticut won 60-54, the Connecticut players would talk about how hungry they had been after being on probation last year, how they never lost faith even after the 33-point loss to Louisville later in the year, how their second-year coach Kevin Ollie had inspired them and driven them and made them believe. It was Connecticut’s fourth national championship in 15 years -- something no team had pulled off since John Wooden’s UCLA teams. They talked about that, too.

“Somebody told me we were Cinderellas,” Ollie would say, “And I was like: ‘No. We’re UConn.’ ”

But before all that, the game ended, and firecrackers went off, and streamers filled the air. And Shabazz Napier ran over to the Connecticut fans, that same group he had nodded to with eight minutes to go. And he shouted, “I told you! I told you!” Then he was engulfed in hugs. Well, he did tell them.

Connecticut wins NCAA title, 60-54 over Kentucky

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Coaches and players left them. Others told them to go away.

The guys who stuck around at UConn ended up with the last laugh and a pretty good prize to go with it: The national title.

Shabazz Napier turned in another all-court masterpiece Monday night to lift the Huskies to a 60-54 win over Kentucky's freshmen and bring home a championship hardly anyone saw coming.

"You're looking at the hungry Huskies," Napier told the crowd and TV audience as confetti rained down. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you banned us."

The senior guard had 22 points, six rebounds and three assists, and his partner in defensive lock-down, Ryan Boatright, finished with 14 points.

The victory comes only a short year after the Huskies were barred from March Madness because of grades problems. That stoked a fire no one could put out in 2014.

Napier kneeled down and put his forehead to the court for a long while after the buzzer sounded. He was wiping back tears when he cut down the net.

"I see my guys enjoying it," Napier said. "That's the most special feeling ever."

UConn (32-8) never trailed in the final. The Huskies led by as many as 15 in the first half and watched the Wildcats (29-11) trim the deficit to one with 8:13 left. But Aaron Harrison, who pulled out wins with clutch 3-pointers in Kentucky's last three games, missed a 3 from the left corner that would've given the Cats the lead. Kentucky never got that close again.

One key difference in a six-point loss: Kentucky's 11 missed free throws - a flashback of sorts for coach John Calipari, whose Memphis team blew a late lead against Kansas after missing multiple free throws in the 2008 final. The Wildcats went 13 for 24. UConn went 10 for 10, including Lasan Kromah's two to seal the game with 25.1 seconds left.

"We had our chances to win," Calipari said. "We're missing shots, we're missing free throws. We just didn't have enough."

Calipari said he decided not to foul at the end "because they're not missing."

In all, Calipari's One and Doners got outdone by a more fundamentally sound, more-seasoned group that came into this tournament a seventh-seeded afterthought but walked away with the program's fourth national title since 1999. They were the highest seed to win it all since Rollie Massimino's eighth-seeded Villanova squad in 1985.

Napier and Boatright now go down with Kemba Walker, Emeka Okafor, Rip Hamilton, Ray Allen and all those other UConn greats. This adds to the school's titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011.

"When they say Ray, Rip, Ben, Emeka, Kemba - they'll soon say Shabazz," said their former coach, Jim Calhoun, who was in the crowd along with former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and a father-and-son team whose dance to the "Happy" song got huge applause when played on the big screen at AT&T Stadium.

The crowd was cheering for UConn at the end.

A short year ago, the Huskies were preparing for their first season in the new American Athletic Conference after being booted from the Big East and not welcomed by any of the so-called power conferences. Calhoun, who built the program, left because of health problems. And most damaging - the NCAA ban triggered an exodus of five key players to the NBA or other schools.

Napier stuck around. So did Boatright. And Calhoun's replacement, Kevin Ollie, figured out how to make their grit, court sense and loyalty pay off.

"It's not about going to the next level, it's not about going to the pros, but playing for your university, playing for your teammates," Niels Giffey said. "And I'm so proud of all the guys on this team that stuck with this team."

They were one step ahead of Kentucky all night, holding off furious rally after furious rally.

Kentucky's biggest push started when James Young (20 points, seven rebounds) posterized Amida Brimah with a monster dunk to start a three-point play and trigger an 8-0 run.

In the middle of that, Boatright, who shut down Harrison's twin brother, Andrew, most of the night, twisted his left ankle while receiving an innocuous-looking pass from Napier. He called a timeout. Got it worked on and came back out.

"I've got a lot of heart and I wasn't coming out," Boatright said. "We put in too much work all year for me to give up on an ankle sprain."

Napier and Giffey made 3s on UConn's two possessions after the timeout, and that one-point lead was back up to five - fairly comfortable by this tight, taut, buzzer-beating tournament's standards.

The big question in Kentucky is what will happen to all those freshmen. Julius Randle (10 points, six rebounds) is a lottery pick if he leaves for the NBA. Young and the Harrison brothers could be first-rounders. The big question is whether they'll want to leave on this note.

"I think all these kids are coming back, so I think we should be good," Calipari deadpanned, getting big laughs.

He called his group the most coachable bunch he's ever had. They were preseason No. 1, a huge disappointment through much of this season. They were seeded an uninspiring eighth for the tournament and came on strong in time for a run to the final.

But they got outdone by a team on a different sort of mission - a team led by Napier, who stuck with the program even though he knew the 2012-13 season was for nothing but fun.

But what fun 2013-14 turned out to be.

Napier was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player and he earned it on both ends of the court, keeping a hand in Aaron Harrison's face most of the night and holding him to a 3-for-7, seven-point, no-damage night.

He could also shoot it a bit - including a 3-pointer in the first half when UConn was having trouble dissecting the Kentucky zone. The shot came from about 30 feet, right in front of the edge of the Final Four logo at Center Court, or, as Dick Vitale put it: "He shot that one from Fort Worth."

They felt it back in Storrs, where they could be celebrating another title shortly. The UConn women play for the national title Tuesday.

If they win, it will be the first sweep of the titles since 2004. The last school to do it: UConn, of course.

UConn students celebrate national championship

STORRS, Conn. (AP) More than 10,000 UConn students shook the stands inside Gampel Pavilion Monday night, then erupted in cheers, stormed the arena floor and poured into the streets as their men's basketball team won its fourth national championship, and second in four years.

"I'm just so happy to be a Husky right now," said Mike Butkus, a 21-year-old senior from Naugatuck. "So much pride. The last 20 years, you'd be hard-pressed to find a program more successful than us."

After the victory the students came outside and onto a plaza for a dance party in the rain. The school hired a disc jockey in an effort to keep crowds of students under control. As many danced, others were hanging from trees and throwing firecrackers.

Extra campus police and state police patrolled on and around campus and several local fire companies were on standby with ambulances. Several people were helped from the arena by paramedics, apparently with alcohol-related issues.

Students said they expect the party to go on into the early morning hours.

"Hopefully I'll be able to go to class tomorrow, but I'm not certain," said Vincent Buffa, a 21-year-old senior from Tolland.

Students waited in line for up to four hours to get a seat inside the arena just to watch on three large movie screens as their team played 1,700 miles away in Arlington, Texas.

A half hour after the doors opened, the arena was filled, and hundreds more were turned away.

"It's my first year of college, you've got to go big," said Ryan Massicotte, an 18-year-old freshman from Naugatuck who was sporting a fuzzy Husky dog hat and sunglasses with the dog logo on each lens. "You've got to show it off the right way."

The students sang the national anthem, chanted "Let's go Huskies" before the tip, roared when the home team was introduced and booed the Kentucky players.

The stands shook every time Shabazz Napier made a 3-pointer. The pep band and school dance team entertained the crowd during timeouts.

Fans jumped up and down chanting "I believe that we will win" as their Huskies struggled through a second-half rally by Kentucky.

A few minutes later, as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Texas, they pushed their way on the floor, turning it into a giant mosh pit as their belief became a 60-54 reality.

It was expected to be especially loud outside the North Campus residence hall, where an email from a resident assistant bent on enforcing quiet hours went viral on Monday.

School officials confirmed the authenticity of the email, but said it was actually sent out to residents of the RA's floor on Saturday, before the national semifinals. But it began getting wide circulation on social media sites on Monday.

The student, identified in the email only as "Derek" wrote that students partying because of a name on the front of a basketball jersey would be "cheering for laundry."

"That's the anti-fun," said Brian Aggerbeck, a 20-year-old junior from Hopkinton, Mass. "That's the opposite of what I want to do. I just want to be able to enjoy myself. I'm not one of those people who destroys things, but we should be allowed to have fun on a night like this."

There were no immediate reports of any major problems, but numerous alcohol-related arrests, the school said.

The undefeated women play for a record ninth national title Tuesday in Nashville. The Husky teams are now a combined 12-0 in NCAA championship games.

A pep rally to honor the men's team was scheduled for 5 p.m. on Tuesday at Gampel Pavilion.