When he took over for the retiring Jim Calhoun back in September of 2012, University of Connecticut then-interim head coach Kevin Ollie concluded his introductory press conference with some very prophetic words:
"I want to just say that we're gonna take the stairs and not the escalator because the escalator is for cowards. We're gonna take the stairs and it's going to be one step at a time and we're gonna get there. Your future's not given to you, you gotta take it."
Ollie was taking over a program that was to be banned from the 2013 men's tournament by the NCAA for low APR (Academic Progress Rate) scores from a few years ago. The school was also set adrift by conference realignment turmoil that left them on the outside looking in, a member of a brand new, Big East refugee conference called the AAC. Mega rivalries with Syracuse and Georgetown were replaced with trips to Central Florida and Houston.
UConn would have a handful of players jump ship before the 2012-2013 season.
But a few of them stayed, and on Monday night the loyal ones were rewarded. More to the point, they rewarded themselves, because the Huskies indeed were not given the 2014 NCAA championship.
They took it.
In a 60-54 win over Kentucky in which they never trailed, everything that was great about this version of the UConn Huskies was on full display.
Their two sensational guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, did to Kentucky's talented, but young Harrison twins the same things they did to Keith Appling of Michigan State and Scottie Wilbekin of Florida. The Huskies' backcourt tied them in knots and choked them out.
Combined, the twin Kentucky catalysts shot 6 of 16 from the floor and turned the ball over seven times. Moreover, like every team the Huskies faced before them in this tournament, the Wildcats were just never able to get in synch on the offensive end. If the game were a cross country flight, the Wildcats were airsick for most of the night.
At the other end of the floor, Connecticut just kept running high screen after high screen after high screen until they got a jump shot they liked or until Napier or Boatwright could beat Kentucky with dribble penetration. The Huskies got a C- night from DeAndre Daniels (who was their MVP against Florida Saturday, but only 4-14 from the field on Monday) and got less than nothing inside from their bigs, who set an unofficial record for having their shots blocked.
And still the Huskies did what they did all tournament long. They overcame.
That's been the theme of not just the Kevin Ollie regime, but Ollie himself. Overcoming anything thrown at you. Ollie arrived at UConn back in the early 90's from the Compton area of Los Angeles and was the point guard for some very talented Jim Calhoun coached teams (the Donyell Marshall/early Ray Allen Era).
From there, after graduation, Ollie would not allow the NBA to ignore him, getting signed to a litany of 10 day contracts, getting cut repeatedly, before eventually getting a nice "nest egg" contract from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Along the way, Ollie attained a respect level around the league that was off the charts. In fact, Cleveland specifically brought him in in 2003 to be the Crash Davis to LeBron James' Nuke LaLoosh, to mentor the next big thing on how to be a pro.
Players from each end of the spectrum, from Allen Iverson to Kevin Durant to Kevin Love, count him as one of their greatest teammates, and Ollie them. When it finally came time to decide to move onto life's next phase, Oklahoma City (his final stop) desperately wanted to keep him around in a coaching or administrative capacity.
Instead, Ollie chose to go home, back to Connecticut, where his wife and kids still lived full time, where his "second father" Jim Calhoun was the head coach, and where he could learn the coaching ropes to one day run a crew of his own.
Even when the chance finally came to take the reins in Storrs, the UConn brass made him earn it, tabbing Ollie as the interim head coach before eventually removing the label when it was obvious he was the man for the job.
Truth be told, it was always obvious he was the man for the job, it just took some longer to see it than others.
Ollie spent the 2012-2013 season holding the ship together, reinforcing to the loyal players who stuck it out through the academic sanctions and through the conference change, all in the name of UConn, that you compete for your school, for your brothers, for pride. Someday, the ban will be lifted, and at that point championships would chase the Huskies again.
Because Ollie will tell you, UConn doesn't chase championships. Championships chase UConn.
And on Monday night, the chase ended. It ended the same place it had three previous times in the last 15 years, on the championship dais with Jim Nantz. Two hard years of steps, no escalators, culminating in a glorious run that etched the UConn name alongside (and ahead of) some of the true pantheon heavyweights in college basketball.
UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina. That's the entire list of schools with more titles than Connecticut. Jim Calhoun begat Kevin Ollie, and the end result is a trophy. Same as it ever was.
After the game on Monday night, Napier was asked by Nantz how he would describe this win, and Napier proceeded to cut a promo, WWE style, boisterously reminding the NCAA that this is what happens when you ban the "hungry Huskies." It was a seminal moment, and the only thing missing was Napier going all "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and glossing himself "Shabazz 3:16."
"Two years, we worked so hard for it. TWO YEARS!" Napier proclaimed.
Two years, thousands of steps, and a coach who imposed his will on his team, and finally order was restored.
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