By Joe D'Ambrosio

4/9/14: The first visit to the Lone Star State was a Texas Mis-Step. The losses to Houston and SMU in the first week of conference play . But in April, on college basketball’s biggest stage, it was a Texas Two Step that resulted in a Big Dance that will last a lifetime as the UConn men won an improbable fourth National Championship.

Make no mistake about it, this title was no fluke. Underdogs is the last five games they played, expected to lose by all the pseudo experts, the Huskies didn’t. And Monday night’s 60-54 win over Kentucky was typical of this tournament run that will be forever remembered in the Nutmeg State.

Unlike the semifinal win over Fiorida (hey, just wondering, do these two wins also mean the Huskies are the SEC champs? ) UConn came out of the gates on fire, Shabazz Napier in his final game, and Ryan Boatright took the game over from the opening tip. By the time the Wildcats knew what hit them, UConn led by 15.
And then at the end, after Kentucky had clawed their way back to within one, UConn never let them tie the game or take the lead. It was the two greybeards, Napier and Niels Giffey who hit big threes and then Boatright with a tough pull up jumper to make it 56-50, and that was the eventual hoop that sent the trophy back to Gampel Pavillion.

But this team, this championship team, won this title at the defensive end of the floor, Their execution of the game plan concocted by the coaching staff in the last three games was nothing short of flawless. They never let Julius Randle get going, They held the Harrison twins in check. Only James Young had a big game offensively for Kentucky. UConn out rebounded the much bigger Wildcats and didn’t allow them to wreak havoc on the offensive glass

And once again, the Huskies ability to hit free throws was pivotal. UConn was 10-10 from the line and they were an incredible 88 percent from the line in the tournament. Kentucky on Monday night was 13-24. Yes, the free throw line played a huge difference in this game.

The bottom line is at the start and at the end, the two most critical times of this game, it was the experienced team outplaying the inexperienced one. And almost always in these games, save for the 2012 Kentucky team, that is how the games play out. One and done may work during the regular season but at the end, in the most important games, having experience wins games.

It’s hard to put into words the type of season Shabazz Napier had. It puts him on the Mount Rushmore of UConn greats of the modern era. Ray, Rip, Caron, Emeka, Kemba, Shabazz. He willed this team to the championship and has rightfully taken his place alongside the all time greats in the Huskies of Honor. To have watched him grow, on and off the court, is one of the things about my job that I enjoy the most.

What a terrific senior season Niels Giffey had. The summer he spent with the German National Team enabled him to come back as one of the best three point shooters in the country. But in the tournament, he wasn’t a one dimensional player. His defense, his rebounding and his leadership were invaluable.

And while the season didn’t play out on the court for Tyler Olander as I’m sure he would have liked, the coaches were unanimous in their appreciation for the leadership he showed and his mentoring of Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan. Not every kid would have done that, but Tyler did. This trio of seniors becomes the first players in UConn’s mens history to win two national championships.

It goes without saying that this team doesn’t win this title without the job done by Kevin Ollie. In the last three games, he outcoached Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan and John Callipari. It never hurts to have the best player on the floor and KO always had that with Napier. But he and his assistants concocted game plans that maximized the Huskies strengths and minimized that of their opponents . Ollie’s ability to lead his team, and get the most of his players was evident from day one but it was never more apparent than this six game run. His decision to take the team to AT&T Stadium in January, his motivational speech to the student section after the home finale when he promised to come back to raise a banner and his ability to put the 33 point loss to Louisville in the rear view mirror as quickly as possible were all a tribute to his motivational skills. And his x’s and o’s ability can’t be questioned. It’s hard to think of a coach who has had a bigger impact in such as short a time as KO.

The time to look ahead to the future isn’t now. No, this is a time to celebrate a wonderfully talented group of coaches and players who combined to give the basketball fans of this state a three week run that will never be forgotten.

It was an outstanding group to be around, and the state of Connecticut can take pride in what classy young men these players are. They deserve all the accolades they will receive. And the biggest accolade of all is the two words that are attacked to their names forever 2014 NCAA National Champions.

What a fun ride it has been !


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