Calhoun must be proud: Ollie taking UConn back to the top

Kevin Ollie has the Connecticut Huskies in the Elite Eight in his first NCAA Tournament as coach.

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NEW YORK — As Kevin Ollie walked off the court, he was met with an embrace. Legendary former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun didn’t say much more than "Congratulations." But really, what needed to be said?

"He’s like a second father to me," Ollie said of his predecessor and mentor. "He really gave me an opportunity to take over this program. He’s built this program on pride and tradition. I just want to keep the torch alive. He’s passed me the baton and I’m trying to roll with it the best way I know how."

It’s hard to argue that he’s done anything less than a stellar job so far after No. 7 UConn’s 81-76 win over No. 3 Iowa State in the NCAA tournament East Regional semifinals Friday night at Madison Square Garden.

In his first NCAA tournament as a coach, Ollie has now guided UConn to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2011, when the Huskies won the national championship under Calhoun. This is just Ollie’s second year at the helm and last year, because of NCAA violations, Connecticut wasn’t even allowed in the postseason.

On Sunday, UConn (29-8) will meet No. 4 Michigan State back at the Garden with a trip to the Final Four on the line. To think, it was only a few months ago that the Huskies were in peril — the coach who built the program stepping down after 26 seasons and NCAA discipline hanging over Storrs.

Final Four . . . for four

The players, stars like Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatwright and DeAndre Daniels, could have bolted. Who would have blamed them? But they never did.

"They love UConn," said Ollie, who played for Calhoun at UConn from 1991-95. "They love the school. They love each other. Like I said we were banned from a lot of things. We were banned from coming here. But they weren’t banned from loving each other."

It’s Ollie who has fostered that and now the biggest win of his coaching career thus far has come in a venue that hosted so many of Calhoun’s triumphs. Calhoun won seven Big East tournament titles at Madison Square Garden. UConn is no longer in the conference, playing now in the AAC, but that doesn’t mean the Huskies don’t feel comfortable here. The majority of the crowd was wearing Connecticut blue and there was little doubt what team it favored.

"It’s definitely comfortable for us," Napier said. "We’ve played here a bunch of times and we’ve kind of got a feel for the court. That’s no big advantage; I think the biggest advantage of our fans. … We just feel like Madison Square Garden is kind of our third home."

Napier had 19 points and five assists, Daniels exploded for 27 points and 10 rebounds and Boatright added 16 points for UConn. It’s defense, though, that Ollie takes pride in. The Huskies held Iowa State (28-8), one of the best scoring teams in the tournament, to just 31 percent shooting in the first half. Cyclones star DeAndre Kane shot just 6-of-18 from the field for 16 points.

FOUL BALL

Ollie gushed afterward about former players like Ray Allen and Kemba Walker coming back and providing the current players with "golden nuggets" of wisdom. But really it’s Ollie himself who has been the biggest reason for this run to the Elite Eight.

He took an impossible situation — following one of the most successful coaches ever with NCAA sanctions to deal with to boot — and turned it into a massive success. And Ollie isn’t done yet.

"It’s just a family atmosphere," Ollie said of the school. "That’s what we created. That’s what Coach Calhoun created and we’re gonna keep it going."