UConn completes rise from ashes with extraordinary title run
APR 08, 2014 2:14a ET
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In a tournament filled with the implausibles and the improbables — overtime games and buzzer-beaters, the inspiring spirit of the North Dakota States and the savvy chemistry of the Mercers, the emergence of a player like Frank Kaminsky or the redemption of a talented-but-struggling team like Kentucky — it took a team like UConn to do what most thought impossible.
It was a dominant, wire-to-wire 60-54 victory Monday night over Kentucky, the most explosive team in the country. We could sit here and talk about Shabazz Napier, the most outstanding player in the tournament, and his gritty 22-point performance. We could fawn over Ryan Boatright tweaking an ankle in the second half but playing through pain to stifle Kentucky's guards and drop 14 efficient points of his own.
But perhaps it's better to look at the road Kevin Ollie's Hungry Huskies took to get to this point than just to focus on this one game.
Consider where the state of UConn hoops stood 18 months ago. The school's legendary head coach of 26 years, Jim Calhoun, abruptly retired and installed Ollie, a former UConn player and current assistant coach, as his successor.
UConn's administration had so little faith in the first-time head coach that Ollie's first contract was for seven months. His first season began with a rush to make sure players didn't transfer away from the school, because UConn was banned from postseason play that year because of academic issues.
Then there was the realignment issue that hung over the school. UConn seemed one of the schools left out in the cold in the massive reshuffling of college sports, leaving the biggest basketball power conference, the balkanizing Big East, for the fledgling American Athletic Conference.
This year's team showed promise alongside inconsistency, including three losses to teams that didn't make the NCAA tournament and an early March blowout loss to conference rival Louisville by 33 points.
That Louisville loss happened less than one month before UConn players would be laying in a pile in the middle of a confetti-covered AT&T Stadium in Arlington, the first No. 7 seed ever to win the national championship.
It is, of course, one of the biggest cliches in sports: No one believed in a team; the team used those doubters, both perceived and real, as motivation to reach deeper.
But seriously: Going into the tournament, who really believed this UConn team could win it all?
I'll tell you who: Fifteen young men who busted their butts through a hundred or so grueling practices this season at Gampel Pavilion. One head coach and his five assistants, all former UConn players. A bunch of fans in Storrs, Conn. And one fiery cameraman at the FOX Sports 1 studio in Los Angeles, a Husky fan who spent the better part of a week in mid-March trying to convince me UConn had the goods to win it all.
Actually, there's one more person who believed that the improbability of UConn's fourth national championship in 15 years really wasn't so improbable at all. I met her on the basketball court Monday night as nets were being cut.
Her face was stained with tears. Her name is Tanesha Boatright, and her son is UConn point guard Ryan Boatright, whose tough, inspired play throughout March earned him a spot on the all-tournament team.
"God is a promise keeper," she told me. "He promised it to me. I've been telling Ryan since he was five that he was gonna win mommy a national championship. Everybody thought I was crazy, (but) if you believe in your child, anything is possible. I saw it coming. I texted him this morning and said, 'Bring mama that jewelry.' I'm waiting on it!"
It's easy to pull some revisionist history in sports and say that championship teams had seemed destined to win it all along. You could say that about last season's Miami Heat team, forgetting just how close LeBron and Co. were to not winning it all. I know I say it about last season's Louisville team, forgetting exactly how close the Cardinals were to losing to Wichita State in the Final Four.
But nobody will pull any revisionist history on UConn, because that ultimate sports cliche was so, so true: Nobody outside Storrs believed they could win it all.
In fact, another reporter turned to me near the beginning of the second half on Monday night, after Kentucky went on one of those Kentucky-like runs. "Well, this is over," he said. I agreed. Kentucky seemed like the team of destiny, UConn an obstacle to the Crowning of Cal.
Instead, what we got was a completely different storyline, one that's just as great: The program that was left for dead has now risen from the ashes.
How's this for impossible: UConn basketball, a program that's rarely mentioned among the nation's elites, now has as many national titles as Duke and one more than Kansas. Only four schools — UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana and North Carolina — have more. And it's all happened over the past two decades, which is as long as UConn basketball has been nationally relevant.
I spoke with Calhoun, the coach who won UConn's first three titles, on the court as players he'd recruited and coached were cutting down nets. He said UConn has been the best basketball program in the country over that time span. I started to protest, but four national titles in 15 years in this day and age is a blueblood-level accomplishment.
What made this team so great, Calhoun told me, wasn't the one-and-done level talent that Kentucky relies on. It was one bull-by-the-horns senior leader, Napier, learning to be his own man, and one intense, no-BS head coach, Ollie, becoming his own man, too.
"When Shabazz was a sophomore, he wasn't the player he was as a freshman (when Kemba Walker helped lead UConn to the 2011 title)," Calhoun said. "Shabazz tried to be Kemba. And he couldn't be. And eventually he became Shabazz. When they're chanting out there, they aren't chanting 'Kemba' — they're chanting 'Bazz.' And they're not chanting 'Coach' — they're chanting Kevin."
After receiving the trophy and cutting down the nets and watching "One Shining Moment," Ollie sat at a podium with a giant smile on his face. He was the fourth African-American coach to win a national title.
"It's unbelievable, because those guys, my players, stayed with the program," he said. "They believed in a vision before anybody seen it. They stuck with it through the down times, when we were losing. When we were winning, they stayed together and they believed it was possible. I think that's the beautiful thing about this championship for me when I reflect on it. Those guys' toughness, but also their togetherness."
I asked Ollie if this national title felt as improbable from the inside as it does to all of us looking in from the outside.
"Somebody told me we were Cinderellas," he said. "And I was like, 'No, we're UConn.' I mean, this is what we do! We are born for this. We are bred to cut down nets. We're not chasing championships. Championships are chasing us.
"A lot of people was picking against us and doubting us, but I told you the last would be the first. We are first now. Last year we were last. We couldn't get in the tournament, but they kept believing. That's what it's all about. You believe. I have a strong faith in God, and God is always going to make a way out of no way."
It was the perfect metaphor for this UConn team: If you said there was a way to North Texas for this team after getting pummeled by Louisville less than a month ago, most people would have thought you were crazy. But the only believers who matter are the ones on the inside, not the ones judging from the outside.
Ollie started to walk off the podium, but then he paused and looked up. What a ride, that smile seemed to say.
"It's sweet," the champion said, and then he disappeared behind the curtain.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.