ARLINGTON, Texas — On senior night, Kevin Ollie made a promise to the Connecticut fans. He would bring his team back in April with a banner.
The Huskies promptly lost their next game at Louisville, 81-48. They lost to the Cardinals again in the American Athletic Conference championship game. They never lost again.
Starting with a survival game against Saint Joseph’s on the first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament, the seventh-seeded Huskies kept playing better and showing different dimensions game to game, upsetting Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida and, finally, Monday night at AT&T Stadium, mighty Kentucky, 60-54, to win the program’s fourth national title, all since 1999.
Shabazz Napier was Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon and Kemba Walker in this tournament, scoring 22 points in the final, 127 in the tournament and finishing his brilliant career with 1,959, one Most Outstanding Player award and two championships.
“You’re looking at the Hungry Huskies,” Napier shouted from the victory podium.
Hamilton helped set the standard at UConn. He was standing on the court during the celebration.
“He’s up there with the great guards in the history of the university,” Hamilton said of Napier.
Kevin Ollie played on some of Jim Calhoun’s greatest UConn teams, but the championship run began after he graduated. He was an assistant coach on the 2011 championship team. Now, he has a championship all his own and a 6-0 NCAA Tournament record.
“Coach Calhoun, the greatest coach ever, paved the way and I just want to thank Coach,” Ollie said.
He was the interim coach when appointed on Sept. 13, 2012. He might be the coach for life after the clinic he put on in the last five games. It is one thing to get on a roll, quite another to win five straight all as the underdog.
Big man Phillip Nolan said having Ollie on the sideline is like having six people playing defense. Ollie is always sliding up and down the court, doing everything but getting into a defensive stance.
UConn now has as many championships as Duke and one fewer than North Carolina. Since the Huskies upset a heavily favored Duke team in the 1999 championship game, no other school has won more than two. UConn has its four. And counting?
Connecticut is 38-8 in its last 12 NCAAs, winning first in St. Petersburg and taking over Texas in the 21st century, winning in San Antonio (2004), Houston (2011) and now a few miles west of Dallas.
The giant stadium sounded like Rupp West. The Kentucky fans clearly outnumbered UConn’s and they were loud, very loud. No matter. As they kept beating teams they were not supposed to beat, the Huskies kept getting more and more confidence. By the end, they simply did not think they could lose. And they were right
This is a program with 10 30-win seasons since its breakthrough in 1989-90, when it was a Christian Laettner buzzer-beater from going to the Final Four. Jim Calhoun clearly built it to last.
Larry Brown’s fingerprints were all over this championship game. Kentucky coach John Calipari got his first college gig under Brown at Kansas. And Ollie, who played for Brown with the Sixers, said: “I wouldn’t be here without him.”
On the last night of the season, there is something tangible on the line — a championship. It is one thing to play a game. It is quite another to play a game with something so significant at stake. UConn, with all its veterans, including Napier, who had a critical role in the 2011 title game, played like they had been playing in this tournament. Kentucky did not. Or, more accurately, UConn would not let it.
The ball pressure that so disrupted Florida had the UK ballhandlers looking for shadows. Napier and his running mate, Ryan Boatright, looked they were playing offense while playing defense. They were going after anything and everything. They combined to score 36 points and get six steals.
The Huskies’ guards were not just faster, they were dramatically so. And it was apparent in the game’s opening minutes.
Ricky Moore, assistant coach and member of the 1999 championship team, said, “We knew we had a speed advantage and we used our speed.”
It was 30-15 after 14 minutes, but it felt worse. UConn (32-8) was getting the ball wherever it wanted, scoring at will. They were quicker to the ball, quicker with the ball, playing a near-perfect first 23 possessions, scoring 1.30 points per possession while holding UK to 0.86.
©2014 Philadelphia Daily News
Distributed by MCT Information Services