Never losing faith
Ollie's leadership keeps UConn unprecedented run alive
ARLINGTON, Texas -- On this day, Kevin Ollie stands in no man's shadow.
Not even the shadow of Jim Calhoun, the three-time national champion and Connecticut legend, can mitigate the brightness of a coach who in his second year paved an unprecedented road to the Final Four. Last season, Ollie led a team banned from the postseason. The Huskies started this journey as a seven seed. But it almost ended before it started.
Ten minutes and 12 seconds had elapsed when it felt like the end for the Huskies. Florida, the top-seeded team in the tournament, led 16-4. Connecticut's DeAndre Daniels and Lasan Kromah suffered costly turnovers as the Huskies struggled to navigate a suffocating Gator defense. And after Daniels got trapped in the corner of the court, the whistle blew -- a timeout, and a turning point.
The Huskies never lost their energy or their will to win. Even as they struggled, their heads never drifted down. And on the sideline, Ollie stood tall. He believed.
The Huskies huddled. And on the dry erase board, Ollie wrote: "Even now, faith."
"I knew we were going to get back in the game," Ollie said. "It was just going to take one possession at a time."
Shabazz Napier added, "We continued to believe in each other. This could be our last 40 minutes and we didn't want that."
But it wasn't faith that propelled the Huskies to their 63-53 victory. It wasn't Napier and his scoring prowess. He finished with just 12 points, not even registering on the stat sheet until stroking a 3-pointer with 3:52 left in the first half.
It was defense.
"It starts on defense," Ollie said. "We live and die on defense, and you have to recognize that."
Scottie Wilbekin, who Ollie called Florida's "Ace of Spades", recognized that, finishing with just as many fouls (four) as points. The Huskies' pervasive attack proved his trump card.
"We just wanted to be relentless," Ollie explained. "Make them uncomfortable. Challenge every dribble, every pass."
And he means "every" dribble and pass.
"He said we had to play 40-full on the defensive end," Ryan Boatright said.
That was the game plan. Forty minutes, no mercy.
"We play tenacious defense," Ollie said. "We're going to play 40-full."
The plan took time. Ten minutes in, the Huskies didn't look like they could stop the onslaught. But on this day, UConn will settle for 30-incomplete.
The team bought into the defense-first philosophy of Ollie, and with it, this seven-seed shocked the best team in basketball and ended the 30-game winning streak that began after a loss to the Huskies.
Florida tied its season low for points and finished the game shooting 19 for 49 from the floor and an anemic 10 percent from deep. Beyond big boys Patric Young and Casey Prather, who battled below with their muscular builds, no Gator shot better than 33 percent. Florida's total of fast break points was zero. Michael Frazier, a 45-percent 3-point shooter, was 1-for-3 beyond the line.
So as the inevitable comparisons to 2011 arise, Connecticut establishes its own identity.
Napier, a passenger for each journey, stresses that this team isn't the same. There's a new mentality. A new storyline. And, as he points out, a different head coach.
"We wanted to create our own path," he said.
When Ollie scribbled on that dry-erase board -- even now, faith -- he, too, believed in this team, not a past path.
And this path does not lead into darkness, does not fall beneath any man's shadow.
Ollie walks into the spotlight on Monday, where the only shadow cast will be from the defense he installed, the philosophy instilled. From the team he bet on even as he faced impossible odds and the Ace of Spades.