While not the 'lone star', Ollie shined the brightest
Back on March 5, it was business as usual for the UConn men following a less-than-inspiring six-point win over Rutgers on Senior Night at Gampel Pavilion.
Coach Kevin Ollie did his required television interview. Shabazz Napier, having just concluded his home career, received some postgame air time, too.
Normally, Ollie would then make his way toward the east side of the arena where the Huskies' locker room is located.
On this night, he took a detour.
Ollie went over to the student section, grabbed a microphone, and boldly announced his team would be back at Gampel in April to celebrate a championship. The students, predictably, went nuts. The media on press row looked at each other with confused looks.
The seed, as Ollie likes to say, was officially planted.
His team’s growth reached its pinnacle Monday night in Texas when UConn defeated Kentucky to win the program's fourth national championship. Prior to the season, it wasn’t outlandish to consider this group a potential championship contender, but it would’ve been crazy to predict the eventual journey they took.
Just three days after Ollie’s declaration, the Huskies were pummeled by Louisville, 81-48, on the final day of the regular season.
After the Rutgers game, Ollie used the word belief on multiple occasions when asked why he made such a speech. That belief was never more tested after the Louisville debacle, and the Huskies responded, reaching the American Athletic Conference tournament championship game. Though they fell again to Louisville, this time by a more respectable 10-point margin, the Huskies displayed signs they could be a dangerous NCAA Tournament team with DeAndre Daniels, up and down all year, finally reaching his high-end potential.
Still, UConn was given a No. 7 seed for the tourney. Seven seeds don’t usually win tournaments. Seven seeds are usually middle-of-the-pack conference teams that go home early.
But, led by Ollie, UConn believed it was better than that. In the first round, the Huskies struggled against St. Joseph’s and trailed by three in the final minute. It wasn’t Napier, Daniels, or Ryan Boatright who saved the season. It was the offensively challenged Amida Brimah, who somehow, someway, connected on a hook shot, was fouled and made the free throw to force overtime. UConn wins.
In the second round, the Huskies rolled over former Big East foe Villanova, and then the team, and especially its fans, took over New York City and Madison Square Garden. Two more wins later, over higher seeds Iowa State and Michigan State, UConn found itself back in the Final Four.
Awaiting the Huskies was the No. 1 overall seed Florida, winners of 30 straight since Napier beat them with a buzzer beater back in Dec. There was a lot of chatter on whether the win was a fluke, considering Napier needed a miracle bounce to find the ball in his hands. Clearly, it wasn’t.
The Huskies fell behind 16-4, but their belief, notably from their coach, never wavered. Led by Daniels, the Huskies regrouped and surprisingly beat the Gators with ease, winning by 10.
By Monday night, even though Kentucky was favored, it was hard to see the Huskies going down. This team, full of experience, was not about to crash at the end of the road against a freshmen-heavy opponent.
Napier scored 22 points, and won MVP. Boatright added 14 with terrific defense. Niels Giffey nailed two huge threes in the second half.
When it was over, Napier pointed to the crowd and yelled, “I told you so!” Boatright, who had a tough year on and off the court, took a knee to reflect.
One moment, though, particularly stood out, showing the belief (that word again) this team had in their passionate coach. Kentan Facey, a freshman, grabbed and hugged Ollie, showing no sense of urgency to let go.
Facey is a talented player and had high hopes of making a big impact this season. His playing time increased as the season went on, but come the postseason, he was out of the rotation and limited to a cheerleading role on the bench.
He is someone who could’ve been a little peeved with his coach. Yet, it was him showing as much happiness as anyone. It was him who went racing towards his coach.
Ollie is not the typical Hollywood script of a coach. He doesn’t use bullying tactics to motivate players, and rarely criticizes them in public. Instead he uses motivational phrases, many of them boxing related, and in these parts, they are known as Ollieisms.
A few samples:
“Greatness is never on discount. Success is never on sale.”
“Ten toes in.”
“The escalator’s for cowards. We’re going to take the stairs – one step at a time.”
“Make the rest of your life the best of your life.”
“Go the extra mile. There’s always less traffic on the second mile.”
Sure, this is not a conventional way of coaching. But, this was not a conventional situation.
Replacing a legend in Jim Calhoun with a postseason ban on the horizon, it was vital for Ollie to put his stamp on the program immediately.
He wasted no time, using the belief he had in himself and translating it into his players.
Today, only two seasons into Ollie's coaching career, they stand on top of the college basketball world. He always believed they would.