The last time Connecticut played New Mexico, coach Jim Calhoun was guiding the Huskies to their first national title.
It didn't appear that rookie coach Kevin Ollie would be leading the 21st-ranked Huskies into Monday night's championship of the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but that's where they'll be after the guard duo of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright helped them dig out of a late hole.
With a berth in the regional semifinals at stake, top-seeded Connecticut defeated New Mexico 78-56 on March 13, 1999, en route to the first of three NCAA tournament titles under Calhoun.
Calhoun retired after last season's disappointing 20-14 season, so Ollie is now running a program that has a chance to open 5-0 for the third consecutive season. The Huskies, the 2008 Paradise Jam champs, have the opportunity to become the first two-time winner of this event following an 89-83 double-overtime victory over Quinnipiac in Sunday's second semifinal.
Connecticut trailed by 10 with less than five minutes to play, but Boatright and Napier scored the team's final 16 points of regulation.
Boatright finished with 18 points and Napier poured in 23 of his career-high 29 in the final 3:24 of regulation and two overtime periods to help the Huskies win their 67th straight against in-state opponents.
"It was a hard-fought victory,'' said Ollie, whose team matched a program record with 39 free throws made. "My hats off to the guys in the locker room, they played hard. It was just a gut-check win for us.''
The Lobos' path into the championship might be even more impressive given the late deficit Kendall Williams and Tony Snell helped them overcome in the semifinals.
They are in the title game in large part to their season-best nine 3s in Sunday's 70-69 victory over George Mason. Trailing by five, New Mexico (3-0) pulled out the improbable win with a 3-pointer by Williams with 11.9 seconds left, a steal by Williams and a Snell 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds to play.
Williams, who had a career-best 23 points in Friday's 66-59 first-round victory over Illinois-Chicago, scored 14 while Snell hit four 3s and finished with a career-high 27.
"We found a way to win," coach Steve Alford told the school's official website. "We made two unbelievable plays down the stretch and now we get a chance to play in the championship."
The Lobos are off to their best start since opening with 12 wins in 2009-10, but they still have plenty of room for improvement. One of those areas is perimeter defense, as their opponents have hit 32 3-pointers in 79 attempts (40.5 percent).
"We just need to work on closing out," Snell said.
Connecticut is shooting just 27.1 percent (16 for 59) from beyond the arc.
The Huskies are also struggling on the boards, getting outrebounded 44-35 on Sunday and by an average of 8.7 in their four wins overall.
- Sports & Recreation
- New Mexico
- Kevin Ollie
- Shabazz Napier