By Neill Ostrout
NEW YORK _ Kevin Ollie swears he always believed his 2013-14 UConn basketball team was capable of making a Final Four. But the Huskies’ head coach is also a big fan of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
So when Ollie took his Huskies to visit AT&T Stadium _ the Cowboys’ home field and the site of this year’s Final Four _ when they were in the Dallas area to play SMU in early January, some of the players joked that they weren’t really sure what Ollie’s motivation was to stop by.
“We always kept believing in ourselves that we’d get there. And going there (to visit), it was great,” UConn forward DeAndre Daniels said after the Huskies beat Michigan State Sunday to earn a return trip to Arlington, Texas. “I feel like a lot of guys probably didn’t want to go because Kevin Ollie is Cowboys fan and people thought he wanted to go because of that.
“But he took us there and when we were walking around, taking the whole tour, it was amazing how big the place was and that big-screen TV. We told ourselves it would be crazy to play in here, and now we’re finally here. It’s a dream come true.”
Though the players had a difficult time imagining what a basketball court might look like on a field that was designed for football, they obviously saw it as a goal to make such a discovery.
“It was a good way to motivate yourself and have a vision of what lies ahead and what you can accomplish,” forward Niels Giffey said. “It’s crazy to go back there.”
The trip to AT&T Stadium wasn’t the only time this season when Ollie professed a belief to his team that they could make it this far. He told them and anyone else who was still in Gampel Pavilion after the Huskies’ home finale much the same thing.
After the Huskies beat Rutgers March 5, Ollie took to the P.A. system and told the fans they could have another celebration in Gampel “after we get back from Texas.”
“He definitely showed his confidence in this whole team,” Giffey said. “I think it’s very important that a coach has a certain demand for greatness. And he really demands greatness.”
Surrounded by a sea of friends, family and former UConn players _ including Richard Hamilton, Cliff Robinson, Khalid El-Amin, Taliek Brown and Andre Drummond _ the Huskies one-by-one cut down the net under one of the Garden’s baskets.
When it came time for Ollie to make his way up and take the final piece down, he took his time. The 41-year-old coach paused on nearly each step to cheer, thrust his arms in the air or just smile.
“That was just a great experience. It’s a great time when you can get on that ladder, but I was really taking my time. One step at a time,” Ollie said. “And that’s what you’ve got to do to get up top of the ladder. You can’t skip no steps. And the last two years we didn’t skip no steps. We took one step at a time.”
Ollie was still in high school when it occurred, but the celebration on this particular floor was similar to one that took place by the Huskies in the same spot 26 years to the day earlier.
On March 30, 1988, UConn beat Ohio State 72-67 at the Garden to win the NIT Championship. It was the first major championship for the Huskies and was in many ways the catalyst for the program’s move onto the national scene.
Like Ollie is now, UConn had a head coach in Jim Calhoun who was just finishing his second season at the helm.
Calhoun, who was in attendance Sunday, shared a big hug with Ollie shortly after the game ended.
THE BOSS APPROVES
When Phil Nolan’s dunk gave UConn what appeared to be an unsurmountable lead in the final seconds, UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel couldn’t help himself.
“I was ecstatic. When that dunk went in, I…I try to sit there calm and I try to be collected, but I just erupted. It was probably the wrong etiquette but I don’t know,” Manuel said.
Given that a year ago the Huskies were banned from the postseason and given some of the other hurdles Ollie has cleared, Manuel was elated for his coach and the program.
“Everything we went through, everything this program has gone through, to have it continue to drive forward and move forward under Kevin, with coach Calhoun around supporting him and supporting me, and the leadership of President (Susan) Herbst and all the things we do as a university and the belief that we have in greatness and pushing forward, this is an unbelievable moment for us in our history,” Manuel said.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Ollie has taken a page out of Calhoun’s book in some ways in the manner he coaches.
“I like what Kevin did. He learned from Jim. His teams play the same way: hard, tough,” Izzo said. “You can tell it’s part of their DNA over there.”
NAPIER BY A NOSE
For the second weekend in a row, UConn guard Shabazz Napier had to leave the action in the second half to deal with an injury. Against Villanova last week it was Napier’s shin. On Sunday it was a bloody nose suffered after a collision with Michigan State’s Gary Harris.
“I was trying to go for the steal. He (Harris) wasn’t looking and I kind of tipped it, and he was going to the ball and then he went to go push me away and just so happened to hit me in my face, in my nose. It just started bleeding,” Napier said.
Much like in the Villanova game, Napier relied on the work of UConn trainer James Doran and was quickly back on the floor.
Napier heaped praise on Doran for his abilities, and certainly harbored no ill will toward Harris.
“It’s part of the game. I didn’t think he did it on purpose,” Napier said.
UConn guard Ryan Boatright may have scored a modest 11 points in Sunday’s regional final, but his contributions to the win went much deeper. The junior also had four steals and helped drive Michigan State guards Keith Appling and Travis Trice crazy with his defense.
“I take pride in my defense, picking them up 94 feet, the entire length of the floor. Even if I can’t pick up a steal, just turning them and turning them and getting them uncomfortable so they can’t run offense so smoothly, it helps the team,” Boatright said.
Appling, a senior who entered the game averaging 11.4 points and 4.5 assists per game, had just two points and two assists to go along with four turnovers against the Huskies. Applying was also in foul trouble for much of the game.
NUMBERS OF NOTE
In something of a statistical anomaly, the Huskies are the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since the field expanded to 64 teams. No. 7 seeds had been 0-7 in regional finals before Sunday.
UConn also broke its own geographical jinx, of sorts. UConn had been 0-5 in “East” regional final games. All four of their previous Final Four trips had come via “West” regional runs.
When teams make surprise runs to the Final Four, it’s sometimes because other upsets in their brackets helped make the road to the semifinals a little easier.
That wasn’t the case for the Huskies this time.
UConn beat three of the top four seeds in its region _ No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State and No. 4 Michigan State _ to reach the Final Four.
According to ESPN, only three other teams had done that in the 64- and 68-team field era. LSU did it in 1986, Florida in 2000 and Butler in 2011.
Actually, there are now five in that category because UConn wasn’t the only team to pull off such a feat in this tournament. Kentucky beat No. 1 Wichita State, No. 4 Louisville and No. 2 Michigan.
The Huskies continue to try and beef up their non-conference schedule, given the lack of RPI-power the American Athletic Conference portion of their slate seems to pack. And they’re doing so with one of the beefiest opponents of all.
There may be a Duke-UConn game in the greater New York area as early as next season, several sources said Sunday.
The two schools are in discussions over a game between their basketball programs in a site such as Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn or even the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J.
The Huskies have also been in talks with Georgetown officials about a series between the two former Big East rivals, but those discussions are apparently on hold until the Huskies determine if they have a game with the Blue Devils set first.
Among the non-conference games UConn already is scheduled to play in the 2014-15 season are ones at Stanford, at Florida and at home against Texas. UConn will also participate in the Puerto Rico Tip-off against a field that includes Boston College, West Virginia, Dayton, College of Charleston, George Mason, New Mexico and Texas A&M.
Napier scored 25 points Sunday to move past Ray Allen (1,922) and into fourth place on UConn’s all-time scoring list. Napier now has 1,925 points. Napier also broke the school’s record for career free throws. He sank nine on Sunday to give him 506 in his career, five more than the previous all-time leader, Kemba Walker. … Ollie was glad to celebrate his team becoming the first from the American Athletic Conference to make a Final Four, and in the first year of the league, no less. “We’ve got our American flag waving out our window going down to Texas,” Ollie said. … UConn is 6-1 in games played at the Final Four (the best winning percentage in NCAA history among teams who have played as many games), winning two games and the title in 1999, 2004 and 2011. Its lone loss came to Michigan State in 2009. … Keith Appling and Adreian Payne became the first four-year Spartans not to make a Final Four in Izzo’s tenure. … Napier (MVP) was joined on the All-Regional team by teammate DeAndre Daniels, Michigan State’s Payne and Harris, as well as Iowa State’s Dustin Hogue.