ARLINGTON, Texas -- This started not against St. Joseph's, on Amida Brimah's season-saving three-point play, not at the Barclays Center on Nov. 8, and not when the head coach broke character on March 5, letting the Gampel crowd know that he'd be returning in a month to hang a banner.
This began on Sept, 17, 2012, the Monday after Jim Calhoun retired. This began when a fired-up Kevin Ollie entered the locker room and met with the guys -- now his guys -- for the first time.
The chips were stacked against UConn, he said. Nobody thought they'd be any good.
He told them, "Behind every obstacle is an opportunity."
He told them they'd be the hardest working team in America. No questions asked.
He handed out a workout schedule and, he cautioned, "This isn't going to be easy."
There were Husky Laps, an exhausting sprint-to-slide drill that was coined under Calhoun, and preseason sprints up the steep Cemetery Hill on the north side of campus. Ollie even ran it with them a few times.
"UConn," Ryan Boatright said Sunday, "has got to have the worst preseason."
UConn has now had the best season. Again.
What began two years ago -- the program left for dead and the players chasing the coach with the unbreakable spirit up Cemetery Hill -- culminated in a championship run that has damn-sure stunned everyone who wasn't present in that locker room on Ollie's first day.
"I keep telling you, it started 18 months ago," Ollie said late Monday night. "We did it the right way for 18 months."
This fourth national championship, this extra-gutty 60-54 win over the young 'Cats of Kentucky, has blown away the third.
During the ceremony, Shabazz Napier, brilliant for a final time with 22 points, shouted into the microphone, "You're looking at the hungry Huskies! This is what happens when you ban us!"
The box score will tell you UConn never trailed, but it looked as if UConn was clinging. Fouls piled up. Boatright twisted his ankle with nine minutes remaining. Good shots were available early; they were scarce late. Kentucky was rugged, tougher than advertised.
UConn wasn't cracking. After all, why start now?
Aside from the nation's best point guard, the two catalysts for this run, Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, found themselves on the bench with two fouls late in the first half. Daniels exited with 5:41 left; Boatright a minute later. UConn found itself struggling against Kentucky's zone. What was a 15-point game, utter domination through 15 minutes, shrunk to four by half.
And then one after Aaron Harrison canned a 3-pointer to begin the second.
"It's a basketball game, but we believe in each other outside of it," Napier was saying Sunday. "If someone on this team said, `Man, if I jump off this building, I can fly,' I'd believe them. That's how strong we believe in each other."
Belief has carried UConn, lifted it to statistical improbabilities. Belief that Brimah, a 57 percent shooter, would convert the layup and the overtime-forcing free throw against St. Joe's. Belief that the Huskies could rally, down 19-9 to Villanova, as Napier sat with two fouls. Belief that Michigan State could be tamed. Belief that Florida, winners of 30 straight, could be tamed twice. And belief that Kentucky, the greatest collection of freshmen talent ever assembled, just couldn't rip this title away from them.Read Full Article
We built Michigan State up to be something special, which it may have been, but the Spartans crumbled under Boatright's relentless pressure and Napier's devastating shot-making. We built Florida into a potentially historic team, praise it certainly deserved, but the Gators looked ordinary and frazzled Saturday night. We knew Kentucky was blazing hot, on an incredible journey much like UConn's, and the teenage mutant Wildcats, to their credit, fought like grown men. They just couldn't get over the hill.
"They were gassed," Boatright said. "They were bent over and we were standing straight up."
They couldn't outhustle Lasan Kromah for an offensive rebound with 1:55 left. They couldn't fully recover from killer stepbacks delivered by Napier and Boatright. How about that Napier 3 with his heel on the midcourt logo? They couldn't finish the comeback after Niels Giffey, in a 1-for-13 slump from 3-point range, buried two in a row late.
UConn had something extra, something that must have stemmed from the coach.
"He's one in a million," UConn senior Tyler Olander said, of Ollie.
Kevin Ollie was born right here in Dallas to Fletcher and Dorothy Ollie, the youngest of three kids. His parents divorced, and Dorothy moved them to Los Angeles. Dorothy was a schoolteacher and an ordained minister. Kevin fell in love with the church because of her preaching. In the summers, Dorothy would send him back to Dallas to stay with Fletcher, who owned a landscaping business. They'd wake up at 4 a.m. to "beat that Texas heat," as Ollie once said.
Both parents were in the stands Monday, Dorothy two weeks removed from breast cancer surgery, to watch the son they molded, a 41-year-old who speaks like a preacher, acts like a player (remember Ollie thumping his chest repeatedly as the clock ticked versus Michigan State, a Final Four berth crystallizing) and looks like one of the best coaches in the country.
This began decades ago, really, when Dorothy Ollie was so impressed with Jim Calhoun's recruiting pitch that she agreed to send her son 3,000 miles east. It began when Ollie again chose Connecticut, this time instead of an NBA job with Oklahoma City.
"Like everything else Kevin does, he's going to check it out with 19,000 people in 19,000 ways," Calhoun said. "I told him, `Don't overdiagnose this. You either want to be a college coach or pro coach.'
"But I never had any question that, once he got here, he would fall in love with coaching and teaching. And he loves that more (than expected). Some guys love other things. Kevin loves coaching."
There's no way Kevin Ollie could have known what he was getting into four years ago -- the ban, the transfers, the impending college athletics earthquake that was supposed to send UConn sliding toward the cracks. There's no way anyone could have known, through it all, he'd be here Monday night, flashing four fingers on each hand.
From the bottom of Cemetery Hill to the top of the ladder in Dallas, the Connecticut Huskies have never been so alive.