ARLINGTON, Texas – A member of the UConn traveling party asked me before the game, “what do ya got?”
I answered, “they’re supposed to lose, but I think they’re going to win.”
You’ll have to take that on faith. I was on 22 radio stations this week, and whenever I was asked to make a prediction, I didn’t, because I don’t think folks who do what I do should predict, we should analyze. I told one station today, I’d give UConn a better chance than most of the experts.
I mean, I’m impressed by what the Huskies have done. But did I see this coming? No.
But here they are. Fans at AT&T were warned to stay inside after the Huskies beat Florida because there was dangerous lightning in the area. Not to worry, UConn has caught it in a bottle.
What they are doing is remarkable, but, then, they have looked like a remarkably prepared team throughout the tournament. Another perfect game plan by Kevin Ollie and his staff, perfectly executed by the players. “The biggest difference since we played them last time,” Billy Donovan said, “is that they’ve turned into a great defensive team.”
The Huskies (31-8) have turned into a great team, period. They shot 55.8 percent from the floor. And like most of their predessors, once in the Final Four, they are the toughest out. UConn teams are 7-1 on the biggest stage, a testament to the way Jim Calhoun and Kevin Ollie handle it.
So it’s all good. The Huskies were savoring their victory Saturday night while Kentucky and Wisconsin were fighting tooth and nail to beat them.
Here’s some Kevin Ollie at the podium, with a shout-out to the remarkable folks at ASAPSports:
“It was a great victory. We were together, we stayed positive and productive, especially in that first five minutes when they got out to a lead. I was very happy with my student?athletes how they recovered.
“We played great second?half defense and kind of took them out of their pick?and?roll motion offense. We started making shots and great ball movement and great body movement. They stayed together and they showed some true grit and toughness. I’m very proud of their effort.
“We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable. We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass. They really wanted to attack empty elbows, if you understand what I’m saying, where they’re coming off pick?and?rolls. They want to dive the big guy, and then they want to get and take the basketball in the middle of the court.
So we wanted to kind of keep them on the baseline. We wanted to show out and double, have them kick it to [Dorian] Finney?Smith or Yeguete and have them make a play, then Scottie Wilbekin can make the play or [Michael] Frazier can make the play, because they’re just terrific shooters, they’re also great facilitators and we wanted to kind of keep them out of the game.
“We have been playing great defense all year. We have been holding our opponents under 39 percent, and you know that’s one of our goals. So that’s been throughout the whole year we have been playing outstanding defense.
Of course we had some bumps in the road like any team has during the season, and I believe that Louisville game was a bump in the road. But I think that really promoted us. A lot of people are saying that was going to destroy us, but our team thought it promoted us to get better. When you have a big problem like that, bigger the destiny. And I know this team was destined for great, even in that downtime. We came back and worked. We made adjustments from that game and I thought we got better from it.
“…I’m not in y’all heads and I don’t know if y’all keep thinking it’s a one?man team, but it’s not. We got great players. But most importantly, we have great teammates. Everybody can be a great teammate every day.
I think they really bought into that. It’s a team game. They invested in each other. Shabazz is the first one to tell you, and I keep telling everybody, that it’s not just him. He’s a willing passer. He’s a great facilitator. Now he scores out of necessity, which I want. But he’s a great facilitator. He gives the ball up to DeAndre and makes plays for DeAndre.
“Ryan Boatright has done a whole 360. If anybody seen him his sophomore year to now, I mean, it’s like night and day. Him being a facilitator, him making other people better. That’s what you do. That’s how you mature as a basketball player, but that’s how you mature as a man. You see all those guys growing up.
“We got in the huddle and I told the guys, I wrote on the board, Even now faith. Even now we’re down 16 and 4, you’re going to have faith in each other. I knew we were going to get back in the game. They knew we were going to get back in the game. It just was going to have it take one possession at a time. Getting stops.
“How they got down, they got four offensive rebounds in that first five minutes. So we wanted to get on that defensive back board, wanted to start pushing the basketball. We wanted to have ball movement and body movement.
“I thought we started doing that, we started sharing the ball. Our guards started getting in the lane, jump stopping, finding DeAndre Daniels for three. We started penetrating and getting in the thick of the defense. I thought they did a wonderful job executing the game plan.
“But it starts on the defensive end. We heard it over and over again, Michigan State, Madison Square Garden was a home court advantage for us. We shot 34 percent in Madison Square Garden. So what kind of home court advantage was that? Our fans were there, but we shot 34 percent. We live and die on defense. You have to recognize that. Hopefully everybody understands that.
“We played tenacious defense. We played relentless defense. It’s not always perfect all the time, but we’re going to play 40 full. That’s what I believe in my guys. They are terrific, terrific people because they do not take no for an answer. They want to play more. They are built for one more.
“We got a chance and I thank God for that. I just want to really thank Billy Donovan. He’s a great, terrific coach. Florida’s a great team, 30?game winning streak, great coach, Hall of Fame coach, and it’s just an honor to play against him and also compete
“It’s very difficult [to stop Wilbekin]. It wasn’t just Ryan Boatright. It was our bigs showing out on screen?and?rolls. It was us getting back in transition. We always say transition starts on the shot, so when those shots was going up, we was getting back in transition, pointing and locating.
“Especially Wilbekin and Frazier, we really wanted to keep them out of the game. Frazier, he reads off of Wilbekin when he gets in the lane. You have a hard dive by Young. You got to play Young. Then you really give up Frazier on the field cut. So we wanted to really stay on Wilbekin, keep him out of the lane, keep him on one side. I thought we did a great job of that starting with Ryan. And then it just started with everybody. That was our key. We call it the ace of spades, that was the ace of spades in this game and we wanted to take him out.
“It’s just going through the dark days believing. They just believe in each other. No matter if they’re down, no matter if they’re banned, no matter if they can’t play in the NCAA tournament, they just believe. They keep fighting.
“I keep telling them, they stay in the middle of the ring, they keep throwing punches. When everybody counts us out, thinking we’re on the mat, we get back up. That’s what this university’s all about.
“This is what UConn has built over the years, starting with Coach Calhoun and keeping the tradition. We’re just tough?minded individuals. When we’re down, we know if we keep progressing and we keep staying together, sooner or later, we’re going to come out.
“Like I said, Even now faith. Even now in the tough times we are going to keep believing in each other. I keep saying the bigger the problem, the bigger the destiny. We knew this destiny was coming. Because our problems that we faced, we overcame them together. It wasn’t just one individual, wasn’t just one coach. It was everybody sticking together and that’s what we built UConn on.
“[Offensive plan] was very effective. We wanted to stretch the court. We wanted to get gaps. They were kind of loading up, which all great defenses do, they load up on the first side. So we wanted to get it to the second side, wanted to swing it to the third side, and then start attacking.
“Then our three guards really gave us space on the court and they made great decisions. Once they got in the lane, they were able to kick out. Also DeAndre was able to come in and get some lobs back behind their 1?3?1.
So they just followed the game plan. They did a remarkable job shooting the ball, especially in the Dome. I don’t know if it’s a record, but 55 percent in the Dome might be a record.
But we want to continue to play, we want to continue to get good shots and be unselfish. I think we did that and we want to compete one more night and play one more 40 full on the offensive end and the defensive end.”
And great – and I do mean great pics from Rich Messina and Steve Dunn.
Like the credit card, Sara Grant is everywhere you want to be – bringing you the fan scene at the Final Four. … and some more pics here.
Last time, and only time the Huskies have beaten a No.1 ranked team in the NCAA Tournament? You know it – Duke in 1999.
Tons of content, video, pics, lot of good stuff from the Saturday Courant if you missed it, as well as coming in the Sunday Courant. And Johnny A and Lori Riley and company are pumping out great stories from Nashville. Check our main website early and often.
Last words from Shabazz Napier:
“We understood that they came out and they came out full intensity. Sometimes it happens in the game. But we keep our composure. We have been in so many dogfights. We sat down after coach called the timeout and he just said, Guys, we have been in this position before, believe in each other.
They were leaving DeAndre open because they were doubling and doing all sorts of things and he took advantage of it. When he knocked down that three, our fans went crazy and then we understood what was going to happen next. We just believed in each other and kept fighting.”
And what was he saying when he was holding up one finger?
“Just simple, one more to go.”
Okay, one to go. UConn vs. Kentucky for the whole thing, first time since 1966 that two teams that did not play in the previous NCAA Tournament will play for the title. … Talk to you tomorrow.