UConn returns to Final Four with new coach after two tumultuous years

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 01, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
A

No. 7 Connecticut

vs. No. 1 Florida

5:09 p.m. Saturday,

AT&T Stadium

TV: TBS, TNT, truTV

Records: UConn 30-8;

Florida 36-2

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

Connecticut is no stranger to the NCAA Final Four. The Huskies have earned their fifth berth since 1999.

But this team, the seventh seed from the American Athletic Conference, which a year ago was banned from postseason play because of poor academic performance, wasn’t supposed to make it to Arlington.

Not with a young, first-time head coach in his second season named Kevin Ollie. Not after a 33-point loss to Louisville to end the regular season and being swept 3-0 by Louisville and 2-0 by SMU, which wasn’t even selected for the NCAA Tournament.

The Huskies (30-8) got here by beating three of the top four seeds in the East Region, including a 60-54 win over Michigan State on Sunday in the East Regional final.

“These kids are loyal,” said Ollie, who was named interim head coach when Jim Calhoun abruptly announced his retirement in September 2012. “I believe in them. They believe in us. They also believe in what UConn is all about, what they can be successful in if they go through this program.”

Ollie’s interim tag was lifted after the team went 20-10 his first season, a season cut short by NCAA penalties for poor academic performance. Several Huskies bolted for clearer skies before the 2012-13 season, but three juniors, including guard Shabazz Napier, stayed.

“I am so happy for Coach Ollie,” said UConn forward Tyler Olander, who chose to stay along with Niels Giffey and Napier. “He took a job with a team that had nothing to play for last year, but he did not look at it that way. His theme last year was to build for this year. He would tell us to plant seeds for the future. It has paid off and I am happy for him.”

Ollie, 41, who played for 11 teams in 13 seasons in the NBA, including his rookie season for the Dallas Mavericks in 1997, said the one-year postseason banned helped the team bond.

“I thought they did a remarkable job last year, people saying they weren’t playing for anything, but they were playing for everything,” he said. “People saying we were banned, but we weren’t banned from caring for each other, loving each other, making each other better, challenging each other. That’s what they did. They learned a life lesson.”

And they’ve been channeling all of that angst from a season ago into a gutsy tournament run. Napier, an All-American point guard, leads the team with 18.1 points and 4.9 assists a game entering the Huskies’ NCAA national semifinal game at 5:09 p.m. Saturday against No. 1-ranked and No. 1 overall seed Florida (36-2).

The Gators have won 30 consecutive games. Their last loss? A 65-64 loss at UConn on Dec. 2 in which Napier scored the last six points for the Huskies in the final 34 seconds, including the winning jumper as time expired.

Napier, like Kemba Walker, who led UConn to the school’s third NCAA title in 2011 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, has been the decisive star during the Huskies’ run, averaging more than 20 points a game. Napier was a freshman reserve on that team, playing 27 minutes in the championship win against Butler.

Napier, Olander and Giffey are the first UConn players to make it to two Final Fours. It’s an outcome Napier even thought farfetched, especially after the tumultuous seasons since the ’11 title.

“Tyler always pulled me and Niels to the side and said he wants us to be the first players [at UConn] to get to two Final Fours,” Napier said. “At the time I just [thought] that’s going to be real hard. And for it to be right here, for us to have the opportunity to play in the Final Four, it’s a special feeling.”

Ollie has leaned on his former coach and mentor Calhoun, who pushed for his former player to take over the reins two years ago.

“He’s a special person in my life,” Ollie said. “When all those people doubted Connecticut, the direction it was going, I know he never wavered. We never wavered. We never blinked. We knew this program was still alive and this program wasn’t going anywhere. We were going to hurt last year, but we were still going to be there and be relevant and we were going to play for what was on the front of our chests.”

Stefan Stevenson 817-390-7760 Twitter: @StevensonFWST

Looking for comments?

We welcome your comments on this story, but please be civil. Do not use profanity, hate speech, threats, personal abuse or any device to draw undue attention. Our policy requires those wishing to post here to use their real identity.

Our commenting policy | Facebook commenting FAQ | Why Facebook?





Sunday, September 21Full Scoreboard
Toronto2Final | Box
NY Yankees «5
Washington «2Final | Box
Miami1
NY Mets «10Final | Box
Atlanta2
Boston «3Final | Box
Baltimore2
Milwaukee0Final | Box
Pittsburgh «1
Chicago WSox «10Final | Box
Tampa Bay5
Seattle3Final | Box
Houston «8
Detroit2Final | Box
Kansas City «5
Cleveland «7Final | Box
Minnesota2
Los Angeles «8Final | Box
Chicago Cubs5
Texas «2Final | Box
LA Angels1
Philadelphia6Final(10) | Box
Oakland «8
Arizona3Final | Box
Colorado «8
San Francisco2Final | Box
San Diego «8
Cincinnati «7Final | Box
St. Louis2
Full Scoreboard
Sunday, September 21Full Scoreboard
No games today
Full Scoreboard
Week 3Full Scoreboard
Thursday
Tampa Bay14Final | Box
Atlanta «56Gridiron Replay
Sunday
San Diego «22Final | Box
Buffalo10
Tennessee7Final | Box
Cincinnati «33
Baltimore «23Final | Box
Cleveland21
Green Bay7Final | Box
Detroit «19
Indianapolis «44Final | Box
Jacksonville17
Oakland9Final | Box
New England «16
Minnesota9Final | Box
New Orleans «20
Houston17Final | Box
NY Giants «30
Washington34Final | Box
Philadelphia «37
Dallas «34Final | Box
St. Louis31
San Francisco14Final | Box
Arizona «23
Kansas City «34Final | Box
Miami15
Denver20Final(OT) | Box
Seattle «26
Pittsburgh «37Final | Box
Carolina19
Monday
Chicago 8:30 PM ET
NY Jets TV: ESPN
Full Scoreboard
Sunday, September 21Full Scoreboard
Columbus «4Final | Box
Carolina3
Buffalo0Final | Box
Washington «1
St. Louis3Final(OT) | Box
Columbus «4
Calgary1Final | Box
Edmonton «3
Edmonton0Final | Box
Calgary «1
Full Scoreboard