UConn completes rise from ashes with extraordinary title run
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.
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.
"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.
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.