Against all odds, UConn did it. Despite being unwanted by conferences, abandoned by coaches and forcibly barred from the Big Dance the previous year, the Huskies pulled off the most improbable tournament run in recent memory with a win over the Kentucky Wildcats: a true Cinderella story.
The Huskies had seemingly everything working against them. Based on merit alone, the Huskies did not seem like a contender at the beginning of the tournament. In fact, UConn finished third in the AAC behind Louisville and Cincinnati and was unranked in the final AP poll going into March. Additionally, a No. 7 seed had never made it to the championship round before, and for good reason. The Huskies’ road to the final was a gauntlet that few could envision them overcoming. During its run, UConn dispatched two dark-horse championship contenders in Villanova and Michigan State and halted the momentum of the hottest team in the country and consensus tournament favorite Florida, which had entered the matchup on a 30-game winning streak. UConn’s championship run culminated in a tough Kentucky tilt, a team that entered the preseason as the consensus most capable group in the country. The Wildcats were loaded top to bottom with one-and-done talent that constituted the overall best recruiting class in recent memory: a true John Calipari team. Despite a disappointing regular season attributed to inexperience and a low tournament seeding at number eight, the Wildcats entered the Big Dance as a dangerous team ready to bust a lot of brackets. Coincidentally, they grew up fast, a fact that made UConn’s victory all the more improbable. Adding to the surprise nature of UConn’s win is the inexperience of coach Kevin Ollie, who made his post-season coaching debut in the first round against No. 10 St. Joseph’s. It seemed clear that a program in transition under a new coach would make little to no noise in the postseason after being under the helm of Jim Calhoun, winner of three championships and serving as a coach for the ages. Ollie began his stint at UConn as an interim head coach, who was eventually able to win over his players and fans. With this win, it would seem that his position is set in stone. As it turned out, Kevin Ollie became only the second coach ever to win the NCAA Championship his first time coaching in it. The first to do so was Steve Fisher with Michigan in 1989.
So how did UConn do it? In a word: grit. The Huskies showed a startling degree of toughness and determination throughout the tournament, trailing St. Joseph’s in the first round with only 47 seconds left in regulation and finding themselves down a wide margin to Florida late in the first half of their Final Four matchup. The Huskies dug deep when they needed to. Center Amida Brimah converted a three-point play against St. Joseph’s with the clock winding down to allow the team to avoid the first round out in overtime. Against Florida with their backs against the wall, the Huskies managed to crank up their intensity and sink shots, ending the game on a 59-37 run after trailing by 12 early in the game. From an X’s and O’s perspective, the bread and butter of UConn’s tournament success boils down to two things: defense and Shabazz Napier. Against the Wildcats’ sixth-ranked adjusted offense, the Huskies managed to limit the Wildcats to a dismal 39 percent from the field for the game and an even worse 33 percent from the field for the second half. In addition, UConn forced 13 Kentucky turnovers, leading to 17 points. Finally, Kevin Ollie’s aggressive defensive strategy limited future NBA lottery-pick Julius Randle to just 10 points and six rebounds. Additionally, crafty scoring and gritty leadership in Napier earned his projected first team All-American status and warranted his tournament MVP award, hitting big shots when needed and often times putting entire portions of games on his back. Against Kentucky, Napier scored 22 points to go along with six rebounds, three assists and three steals. While it remains to be seen what Napier’s NBA prospects hold in store, it can be said at least for now, that he has established himself as the best player in the country. Through gritty play and strong defense, the Huskies have also established themselves as the best team in the country.
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