STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Kevin Ollie delivered on the promise he made last month after UConn’s final home game, bringing an NCAA championship back to Gampel Pavilion.
Ollie and the Huskies, who beat Kentucky 60-54 on Monday night in Texas, arrived back on campus Tuesday evening for a raucous pep rally in front of about 7,500 fans at the Huskies’ home arena.
“On senior night I told you all to save this date, didn’t I?” Ollie told the crowd Tuesday. “The only reason I said that is because I knew what kind of team I had, what kind of coaching staff I had and I knew I had the greatest fans in America behind us.”
Ollie had grabbed a microphone after UConn’s 69-63 win over Rutgers on March 5 and promised the crowd that UConn would be back in April to hang a banner.
The title is the fourth for the program and the second in four years. It comes a year after the Huskies were banned from the NCAA tournament for failing to meet academic requirements, and after the school was left out of the expansion plans of both the ACC and Big Ten conferences.
“I think it’s an incredible thing from being down and out of the tournament to where we are now,” said 23-year-old Matt Thomson, a 2013 graduate from Fairfield who came back to campus to welcome the team home. “I think it shows the real passion of the players, the fans and this entire school. No one lost hope. We all believed that we were still UConn.”
Fans were allowed to mingle with the players for about a half hour. They were invited back to the arena Tuesday night to watch on movie screens as the undefeated UConn women played for a ninth national title against Notre Dame in Nashville.
After the rally, Ollie said the adversity of serving a penalty for transgressions committed before they arrived helped bring the team together as well.
“It’s a great life lesson for them, and they are going to be better men for it,” he said. “They didn’t stop fighting for each other and now they’re reaping the success afterward.”
Fans at the rally cheered loudly as each player was introduced; saving their loudest ovation for senior star Shabazz Napier.
Napier’s mother, Carmen Velasquez, also was on hand, helping to unveil a plaque that put his name alongside other former UConn greats such as Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor and Kemba Walker on the Huskies of Honor wall high atop the arena.
“Hey mom, be careful up there, I love you,” Napier said. “Wow, I never thought I would be in the Huskies of Honor. I never thought my jersey would be retired in college. Wow.”
The senior All-American led the Huskies’ improbable run as a No. 7 seed through the NCAA tournament and scored 22 points on Monday. He finishes his career with 1,959 career points, and two NCAA championship rings. He ranks fourth on the Huskies all-time scoring list, third in assists and second in steals.
It’s the fourth time that the UConn men and women were in the Final Four at the same time. The school is the only Division I program ever to win both titles in the same year, accomplishing that feat in 2004.
State and local police were out in force again Tuesday night, in anticipation of a second consecutive night of celebrations on campus.
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