ARLINGTON, Texas — If the improbable UConn Huskies and their coach, Kevin Ollie, have proved one thing, it’s that they are great at fighting the current.
After starting the previous season burdened with an interim tag, Ollie battled doubters to earn a long-term deal later that year.
Now his Huskies — considered a temporary darling even heading into last weekend’s regional — have demonstrated there is nothing fluky about their run. In a tournament in which they have stung some of the country’s most-talented teams, the seventh-seeded Huskies (31-8) have an opportunity to win a national championship after beating Florida (36-3), the overall top seed, 63-53 on Saturday in the Final Four.
“This group of guys has been together for three years and in those three years we’ve been through a lot,” East Aurora product Ryan Boatright (13 points) said.
“Even when nobody believes in us, we believe in each other and we believe in our coaching staff.”
UConn beat St. Joseph’s in a first-round OT thriller, tripped a Villanova team once thought to contend for a top seed, upset Iowa State and Michigan State (the most-talented team in the field) before ending the Gators’ 30-game winning streak.
It hasn’t been a smooth road.
Gators center Patric Young, an action-figure lookalike, ripped through UConn in the first 10 minutes of Saturday’s semifinal.
Young (19 points) appeared unstoppable, while the Huskies’ do-it-all-senior, Shabazz Napier, who led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists this season, was having his worst game of the tournament.
Napier (12 points) didn’t score until 3:54 left in the half. But DeAndre Daniels, whose confidence has been a priority for the UConn coaching staff, picked up the slack with 20 points on 9-for-14 shooting.
“We started off a little bit slow and we just told guys just to stay with it and keep believing in each other,” Daniels said.
Quite the turnaround. A month ago, no one could have predicted Daniels would be the difference-maker as the Huskies found themselves down by 12 early.
After watching the job Ollie did with Daniels, the program might need a velvet rope to keep back the bevy of prospects who will line up to play for him. That is, if the NBA doesn’t get to Ollie first.
Not bad for a coach once considered merely a bridge from the Jim Calhoun era as the Huskies embarked on a year in which they were ineligible for the postseason.
“We just wanted to be relentless and make them uncomfortable,” Ollie said. “We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass.”
FINAL FOURARLINGTON, TEXAS
SOUTH Memphis, Tenn.
EAST New York
WEST Anaheim, Calif.
Mich. State 54
3Iowa State 76
4San Diego State 64
4Michigan State 61
Championship: 8:10 p.m. Monday. Ch. 2, TNT, TBS