Kevin Ollie rescues UConn from sanctions, defections to spark unlikely Final Four berth

Kevin Ollie rescues UConn from sanctions, defections to spark unlikely Final Four berth

NEW YORK – They were left for dead in conference realignment. They were banned from last year's NCAA tournament due to poor academics. They were hit with recruiting sanctions due to NCAA violations. Transfers and defections weakened the roster. Then they saw their Hall of Fame coach, the blood and guts builder of the entire Connecticut basketball empire, retire on the eve of the season.

And they never cracked.

Not then, in the fall of 2012. Not since, no matter how dim the future looked and certainly not down nine points in the second half to mighty Michigan State. Why fade when there was hellacious defense to be played, deep threes and perfect free throws to be drained and a college sports world to be reminded that the Huskies, yes, the UConn Huskies, were still damn here?

Connecticut 60, Michigan State 54, as the written-off wrote its ticket for Texas.

Eighteen months ago, in its most uncertain of moments, UConn turned to Kevin Ollie, an iron-willed product of South Central Los Angeles, to navigate the chop. He had just two years of assistant coaching experience but was a man who willed himself into a star at UConn in the early 1990s and fought his way into an NBA career that that spanned 11 different teams, 13 seasons and didn't end until Kevin Durant was saying how much Ollie taught him about being a pro. ("I sure didn't teach him how to score 30 points a game," Ollie joked.)

Tough? Oh, they don't come tougher than the wiry Kevin Ollie or his Huskies, the program and school that wasn't supposed to remain among the national elite. The 41-year-old, however, cuts a presence that is both serious and significant. He has a calm, powerful way of communicating that can sell anyone on everything. It took less than four months as an interim before he was handed the job for good.

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Ollie sees every bad thing that could ever happen – league breakups, tourney bans, 33-point losses just three weeks ago – as just an opportunity to be greater than ever before.

So down big to Michigan State with all those Tom Izzo-coached brutes knocking them around, the Huskies' shots not falling and their dream run seeming to collapse at that hands of the Big Ten – one of those leagues that didn't want them? That's when fun stuff happens.

UConn just dug even deeper. Defensively it was able to deny the ball inside where MSU had a notable advantage, instead forcing the Spartans to shoot 29 threes. Then the Huskies' vicious perimeter defense, mostly from Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier, just swallowed State alive.

"We're physical too," Ollie said. "Don't get it mixed up. We're predators out there."

The predators went on a 26-7 run to take control of the game, with their star, Napier – who could've transferred but didn't – lighting up State for 25. With a late lead, their outrageous free-throw shooting (21 of 22 Sunday, 88.0 percent for the tourney and 91.7 percent in the final five minutes of games) allowed them to win going away.

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It set up next Saturday's Final Four showdown against Florida. The Gators are winners of 30 consecutive games, with the last loss on Dec. 2 courtesy of … Connecticut.

The Gators can wait. This was about the now.

This was about Madison Square Garden engulfed in Husky blue pandemonium, Sinatra blaring over the sound system and Ollie climbing a ladder to snip these improbable Final Four nets as the fans chanted his name.

"Kev-IN OLL-ee. Kev-IN OLL-ee."

"I was really taking my time," Ollie said. "One step at a time. And that's what you've got to do to get to the top of the ladder. You can't skip no steps. And the last two years, we didn't skip no steps."

This is the Kevin Ollie coaching experience in a nutshell: an endless, relentless confidence-building exercise via motivational vignettes that couldn't have found a more perfect home than a program that was under siege.

What was left was a team, an athletic department, a school, maybe even parts of a state that had its identity rocked. Everyone was running from UConn, which meant those that stayed had to find a way to get stronger.

Maybe the most critical was Napier, the slight guard out of the Roxbury section of Boston, who's game had struggled as a sophomore and was a prime candidate to try to reset everything somewhere else in 2012. Instead he met with Ollie and leaned on the words of his mother, who raised three kids by herself through far tougher times than a slump and a year of tourney ineligibility.

"I told him, 'You've got to stay focused, you have to stay and finish what you started,' " Napier's mother Carmen Velazquez said.

So he stayed. And two seasons later he finished, by swishing three, final-minute, Elite Eight-clinching free throws like he didn't have a worry in the world.

Napier and the Huskies are so tough, so determined, it wasn't even stressful. Even his mother knew he'd hit them, although the ensuing screams of delight left her without a voice. "I'm out of breath," she said. And the vision of her son celebrating left Velazquez in tears, against his pleading to not cry.

Well, mom wasn't the only one crying around here. There were tears from down by the cheerleaders and high up in the MSG stands. There were hugs from the parade of current and former NBA players who descended to support the family. There was this sense of overwhelming pride.

There was Warde Manuel, the UConn AD, the man left to dig out from an avalanche of bad news days, watching a Philip Nolan exclamation point dunk with 12 seconds left and not being able to contain himself. He jumped out of his seat and nearly knocked over a table courtside.

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"I try to sit there calm, and try to be collected," Manuel laughed later. "But I just erupted. It's probably the wrong etiquette on the TV … I don't know."

There was nothing to apologize for. He shook his head and looked around at the party, the show of force from the school. This wasn't just a team earning a trip to a Final Four. There was more here, a lesson about staying the course and sticking together and refusing to crumble. This may have been sweeter than even the program's three national titles.

"It's unbelievable," Manuel said. "Everything we went through, everything this program has gone through to have it continue to drive forward, move forward under Kevin … the belief we have in greatness and pushing forward?

"This is an unbelievable moment for us in our history."

Over and over conversations went back to Ollie, though. Credit kept getting hurled to Ollie. He's soft-spoken, deflective of attention and deep of faith. His entire life, his entire career has been about being doubted and proving himself tougher than anyone imagined. Then being doubted again.

And that was his team Sunday. When others saw a bigger, stronger Spartan team, when others saw an overwhelming deficit against a veteran club, Ollie saw a resolve he didn't believe anyone could match.

"We use our toughness mentally," he said. "Concentration and mental toughness. If you go 18-for-18 [from the line] in the second half, you've got to be mentally tough."

That's the coach. That's his program.

"Kevin Ollie …," Velasquez said. "What a coach. The best coach going right now, Kevin Ollie."

"What he does," assistant Karl Hobbs, who once coached Ollie as a player, said, "is he really gets guys to believe, believe in himself and believe in each other. That's what he does like no one else."

Ollie has never been dealt the perfect hand. He probably wouldn't know what to do with one anyway.

"In down times what you do is you bond together as brothers," Ollie preached postgame.

"And you hold that fist up."

On Sunday, Ollie, Napier, UConn – the whole place really – held the fist up and then swung it. Turns out Michigan State never really stood a chance. The Huskies are still standing, still punching. And they aren't done yet.