With nine seconds left in Connecticut’s taught 60-54 victory over Michigan State, coach Kevin Ollie finally cracked his first smile of the afternoon. And what a smile it was. UConn had just wrapped up the East Regional Final at Madison Square Garden and with the victory is headed to North Texas for an improbable spot in the Final Four.
“It was just an amazing feeling to do it in Madison Square Garden,” said Olllie, whose squad was the beneficiary of a loud partisan Husky crowd.“And for the NCAA not to be here for 50 years and then we come out and we win it, it just puts a great bow on this gift.”
Ollie’s focus was evident from the moment his team took the court for pregamewarm-ups. During the national anthem, he had the determined look of a prize fighter, while lined up next to his team. Once the game began, his enthusiasm and affection for his players was non-stop. Even with his team trailing by as many as 11 points early in the second half, Ollie showed no signs of losing confidence in his squad. In fact, that’s when he became even more demonstrative in his support. Walking the sidelines, clapping his hands, clenching his fists, making facial contortions, all the while calling out plays, Ollie would not let his Huskies stop thinking that this game was still theirs for the taking.
“Coach told us to keep our composure,” said Shabazz Napier, a consensus first team All-American who finished with a game high 25 points.“They made their run and it was time for us to make ours. And when coach looks at me a certain way, I just know I have to be more aggressive, and I got to get open shots when my teammates get me the ball and we just kept running.”
That’s exactly what the Huskies did, sparked by the play of Napier, who soon after, drilled a three pointer and made four free throws enroute to their own 12-0 run. UConn eventually took a 35-31 lead and never looked back.
“Guys believe,” said Ollie, in his second year as head coach. “They didn’t get out of their roles and they believe in each other and we call it Level Five and that’s a championship mentality.”
Ollie, along with seniors Napier, Niels Giffey, and Tyler Olander were a part of Connecticut’s 2011 NCAA championship team and know something about a winning mentality—only all of their roles were quite different during that run to the title.
Ollie was the top assistant to the Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, and all three players who were just freshman, contributed to the team’s success. Napier has developed into one of the brightest stars in college basketball, and Giffey is a now a major all-around presence in each game plan. But it is the connection between Napier and Ollie that has allowed such success during this transition period. Ollie, 41, a guard and captain himself for UConn back from 1991 - in addition to carving out a 13-year overachieving NBA career -was the backcourt coach for Napier as a freshman.
Along with star guard Kemba Walker, the three forged a special bond working on the inside secrets of ball handling, shooting, and passing that Ollie had picked up from all his years playing the position. Kemba, a gifted leader and player, led the team to the title that year, and Napier was soaking up knowledge from the experience while alsobeing mentored by Ollie. Another gifted guard, junior Ryan Boatright, joined the team the year after Kemba left for the NBA, and, now, along with Shabazz, forms one of the fastest and most talented backcourts in college basketball.
“And you know what, I can do this job, but I need a lot of help,” said Ollie, when asked about taking over after the retirement of legendary coach Jim Calhoun.
“It’s not just a one-man show. That’s why I got a great coaching staff, that’s why I got great players, and that’s why I want to just keep forging on and keep building.”
This closeness between Ollie and Napier and the entire team was on display at the Garden in front of 19,000 plus cheeringfans. Often times it is the non-verbal cues that give a team an edge – familiarity and camaraderiethat can only be gleaned from years of being together on the practice court and in intense game situations.
Late in the game against Michigan State, the referees overturned a call that awarded the ball to the Spartans. Shabazz calmly informed Ollie that the ball would now belong to the other team. Ollie didn’t say a word – only nodded his head. Connecticut took to the defensive end without any fanfare and did what they had done all game long when it was really needed –made a defensive stop. With the ball back in the hands of Napier, the Huskies were on their way to North Texas.
Mike Cohen is a sports writer for Education Update and the founder and director of Throwback Sports, a Westfield-based individual and small group sports program for children. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.