Kentucky head coach John Calipari knew his team was fortunate to be within just four points of his counterpart, head coach Kevin Ollie, and the Connecticut Huskies, at halftime during Monday night’s national championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“We should have been down 20 [points],” Calipari admitted after he reluctantly had his team switch to a zone defense that ignited a 16-5 run which closed he opening half and got his Wildcats to within 35-31 by intermission. “I was giddy to be down just four points.”
For good reason, especially since eighth-seeded Kentucky had overcome first-half deficits of nine (twice), 10 and 13 points in its previous four games to reach its historic meeting with seventh-seeded UConn in seed-wise, the most unlikely national title game in history.
It was at that point that CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson reminded Ollie how much Kentucky had been a second-half team during this year’s NCAA tournament.
“Well, we’re a second-half team too,” the supremely confident Ollie snapped back. “Whatever Kentucky does, we’re gonna go one step farther.”
Ollie was right, because even after Aaron Harrison — who became Mr. Big Shot with his string of heroic, late-game 3-pointers during Kentucky’s surprising tournament run — made another 3 to bring the Wildcats to within 35-34 as the second half began, Ollie’s gritty Huskies never allowed Kentucky to lead at any point on Monday night, They outscored the Wildcats 25-23 in the second half, to win, 60-54, and deliver UConn’s fourth national.
The victory was a culmination of Ollie’s bold forecast that he shared with his team as the calendar turned from 2013 to 2014.
Back then, the Huskies followed an 11-1 start (that included a win over the tournament’s eventual top seed, Florida) with a poor transition from the Big East Conference to UConn’s inaugural year in the America Athletic Conference.
UConn rallied from a 21-point deficit, only to lose by four points in Houston, on New Year’s Eve. Four days later, the Huskies began the new year with a nine-point loss in Dallas, on the home floor of SMU (the tournament’s biggest snub, which later came within a couple of baskets of winning the NIT).
It was a Texas two-step in reverse, to be sure.
Yet Ollie, who already became a champion as a head coach in his first NCAA tournament in that role, used the experience as the ultimate motivator.
Before UConn returned home and won six of its next seven games (while avenging the loss in Houston in a big way, with an 80-43 home victory), Ollie took the Huskies to nearby Arlington where he allowed his players to soak in the atmosphere of the enormous AT&T Stadium and envision that more than three months later, they would be back there cutting down the nets as national champions.
Perhaps the reason why Ollie — who became the 12th head coach to guide his alma mater to a national men’s basketball title — relates to his players so well is because he once ran the point for the Huskies from 1991-95.
Or maybe it’s what he learned while graduating from UConn in 1995 with a communications degree. Certainly, a contributing factor is what Ollie absorbed in the two years he spent as an assistant under legendary head coach Jim Calhoun, whom Ollie took over for, after Calhoun retired.
And definitely, the perseverance of lasting as an NBA guard for 13 years, despite 15 stops with a dozen different teams, after two years with the CBA’s Connecticut Pride, has demonstrated to the players he coaches now, that hard work and persistence can pay off, even when things seem the bleakest.
That could be what ultimately carried the Huskies from a humiliating 81-48 loss at last year’s national champion, Louisville, on March 8 (along with two other losses to Louisville during the season), to UConn’s own national title exactly 30 days later.
Accomplishing such a feat made history, as the Huskies overcame the largest regular season loss by an eventual national champion.
But UConn didn’t stop there with rewriting the record books in ways that stem from Ollie’s ability to permeate his own toughness and positive thinking throughout the Huskies’ roster.
Whereas Kentucky missed 11 of 24 free throws on Monday night, UConn became the first team to win a national title while going perfect (10-for-10) at the foul line.
Overall, the Huskies set a tournament record (for a minimum of three games) by coolly making 87.8 percent (101 of 115) of their free throws, to eclipse the previous record of 87 percent, set by St. John’s, in 1969.
Included in that stretch was a free throw by freshman center Amida Brimah that capped a late three-point play, which might have very well been the difference between the very fine line of UConn losing in its first tournament game during the second round (to 10th-seeded St. Joseph’s), and making its next 14 free throws (all in overtime) to springboard the rest of the Huskies’ remarkable and unlikely run to a title.
Want more examples of how Ollie’s squad dug deep to pull off the unthinkable?
With the victory over St. Joseph’s, UConn became the first team to win its first game in overtime and win a national title since the previous time a “dog team” met a “cat team” in the championship game — when the North Carolina State Wolpack beat Pepperdine in double overtime to spark a Cinderella run that concluded with its 1983 title win over the heavily favored Houston Cougars.
A tribute to Ollie’s belief in hard-nosed defense, the Huskies became just the second team (and the first since Indiana in 1981) in NCAA tournament history to win regional final, national semifinal and national championship games while holding each opponents in each of those games to less than 60 points.
Quite consistently, UConn gave up 54 points to fourth-seeded Michigan State, then 53 to top-seeded Florida (while beating the Gators for a second time) and finally, 54 again, to Kentucky. In each case, those teams shot under 40 percent while scoring anywhere from 16.9 to 21.5 points below their respective season scoring averages.
The Huskies, who are the first seven seed to win the national title also became the second team to win the national championship by beating five higher-seeded teams in the tournament (the other was Villanova, the lowest seed to win the title, as an eight seed, in 1985).
And since the Associated Press poll was expanded to 25 teams for the 1989-90 season, no team had won a national championship after being ranked outside the top 15 in the final poll released before the NCAA tournament. That is, until this season, when UConn entered the tournament ranked No. 18.
Just another way that under Ollie, the Huskies defied the odds through belief in each other and in their coach.