NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie, the Connecticut coach, organized a field trip during his team’s jaunt through Texas in early January. Taking a break from basketball, the Huskies visited AT&T Stadium, the site of this year’s Final Four.
The stands were empty, but Ollie envisioned them full. He glanced at the enormous scoreboard and imagined seeing his players’ faces, hearing their names announced. If they worked hard and listened to him and the coaching staff, he told them, they would return a few months later.
His players, barred from postseason play last season because of their predecessors’ poor academic performance, remembered Ollie’s words. The Huskies remembered them through every loss, through every practice and every sprint, and they remembered them again Sunday, when UConn completed its third consecutive upset, a 60-54 victory over Michigan State in the East Regional final.
It was as if half the Nutmeg State had decamped for Madison Square Garden to witness UConn’s revival, so loud was the crowd that chanted and urged on its team, cheering every rebound by DeAndre Daniels, every steal by Ryan Boatright, every jumper by Shabazz Napier, who led all scorers with 25 points and was voted the most outstanding player of the regional. When Ollie finished cutting down the net and swung his piece toward the fans, he waved his hand and cupped his ear, pleading them to cheer even louder. They did.
Many of them, presumably, will flood North Texas this week for UConn’s return to AT&T Stadium, just as Ollie promised. En route to its third Final Four in six years, UConn toppled the region’s second (Villanova), third (Iowa State) and fourth (Michigan State) seeds, becoming the first No. 7 seed in 30 years to make the national semifinals. It will next play Florida, which has won 30 straight games. The Gators’ last loss? To UConn, back in December.
“We’re a 7 seed?” center Phillip Nolan said, smiling. “Oh, I thought we were a 1 seed.”
It was easy to be confused this weekend at the Garden, where UConn’s surge evoked that of the underdog 2011 team, which, after trampling five teams in five days to win the Big East title, won the national championship some three weeks later. Like that bunch, these Huskies were led by a transcendent guard, Napier, who dominated opponents just as his mentor, Kemba Walker, did. After Michigan State – which last led with 12 minutes 38 seconds left – narrowed the gap to 53-51, Napier was fouled on a three-point attempt with 30.6 seconds left. He made all three free throws, all nine for the game.
“When you have the best player on the court at the end of the game, you’re going to win a lot of games,” said Jim Calhoun, a former UConn coach, “and we had the best player on the court just about every game this year.”
The Spartans played as if “walking in quicksand,” coach Tom Izzo said. They entered the tournament at full strength, but their 16 turnovers and inability to establish a consistent presence in the lane, where the Spartans scored 6 points, mean that this is the first senior class in Izzo’s 20 seasons not to reach a Final Four.
“It was on my mind a lot,” said Adreian Payne, one of those seniors. “Every huddle.”
That class will also leave 0-3 against UConn, which beat the Spartans in 2010 and in their season opener last year, Ollie’s first game as coach. It is not easy replacing a legend. There are expectations, and there is pressure, especially when that job is at the successor’s alma mater, and Ollie inherited a team that knew from the outset that it would not play in the postseason.
In the final seconds Sunday, Ollie patrolled the sideline pounding his chest, as if he were either atoning for his sins or reminding his players how they had arrived at that point. On the whiteboard in the Huskies’ locker room Ollie had scrawled six keys to the game, including: Workmanlike attitude. Communicate. Rebound. The last, in all capital letters, read: fist.
“In down times, what you do is you bond together as brothers,” Ollie said. “And you hold that fist up.”
Napier and Daniels and Boatright did not think about transferring. They pledged their loyalty to UConn. That loyalty was rewarded Sunday, when former stars like Ben Gordon, Richard Hamilton and Emeka Okafor were in the stands. They returned to offer support but also because they sensed what could be. This was UConn playing in New York, at the Garden, site of so many fond memories.
In the locker room afterward, Khalid El-Amin strolled in with Boatright, and the two point guards shared a poignant moment. El-Amin pulled him close and said, “Keep going.”
“We’re Connecticut,” Hamilton said. “We’ve won championships. We know how to win.”
Not long after winning the latest one, Ollie finished a television interview and met Calhoun at midcourt. He kissed Calhoun on the cheek and the men embraced, sharing a private conversation. A task awaited. Ollie turned to his assistant Ricky Moore, a guard on the 1999 championship team.
“Let’s go cut down some nets,” Ollie told him.