Tuesday, April 15, 2014
UConn's Journey As 2014 Champs
The season started for the Huskies with a new look to their surroundings as they were now members of the AAC (American Athletic Conference). The only familiar faces Connecticut would be seeing were Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida and Rutgers. They went from a premier conference in the historic Big East to the now average AAC; a conference that gets no respect. After not being able to compete in any postseasons tournaments in the 2012-13 season, the Huskies led by Shabazz Napier were ready to make it back to the tournament. Even though their conference was getting no respect, the Huskies were by being ranked 18th in the preseason AP poll.
They took that ranking and started the season off on a good roll handling the easy non-conference schedule. After starting 7-0, the Huskies met up with the #15 Florida Gators in Gampel Pavilion for a good pre-conference schedule tune up. The game was well played by both teams and UConn was trailing by one with seconds to play when a missed shot fell into Shabazz Napier’s lap and he hit the game winning jumper at the buzzer to give the Huskies a huge 65-64 over a strong opponent. A couple weeks later though, UConn hit a rocky road losing on the road to a bad Houston team and a decent SMU team back to back. In both games, UConn was the better team, but their play seemed lagging at times in those games. It seemed that they just needed to get back to Storrs and get some rest.
Just two weeks later the Huskies were in the Fedex Forum to face their new AAC rival, Memphis. The Huskies controlled most of the game and beat the #17 Tigers by ten for another solid victory to add to the résumé. UConn then went back home to face a familiar old Big East foe in Louisville. UConn kept it close for most of the game, then Coach Kevin Ollie was ejected for his second technical and the Huskies ended up losing to the defending champs by twelve even though Napier had a valiant 30 points in the loss.
The last four weeks of the season, UConn added another solid victory over a good Memphis team in overtime and just barely lost to the #7 Cincinnati Bearcats in a tough hard fought game. Down the stretch, UConn lost to SMU yet again and to close out the regular season they were obliterated by the Louisville Cardinals 81-48, one of the worst losses for the Huskies in years. Heading into the conference tournament, the Huskies were a mixed bag. On most nights, they could show up and play well and on other nights they could come out flat and get smacked as they did versus Louisville. The biggest constant was Shabazz Napier. He led the team in all three major stat categories (points, rebounds, assists) during the regular season. The other players, Boatright, Daniels, Giffey and Brimah were the real keys to UConn’s future success. If they could turn in on and be consistent the Huskies were bound to make a run.
The first AAC conference tournament game for the Huskies was a rematch versus a team that they had previously beat twice in Memphis. The Huskies handled Memphis on the back of shooter Neils Giffey and his six three-pointers. UConn won 72-53 on the back of Giffey’s 24 points and Memphis’ horrid shooting performance. The next night UConn was able to fend off #15 Cincinnati 58-56 on the back of clutch play by Napier. They would meet Louisville for a third time in the season for the AAC title. For a third time in the season, Louisville was too much for the Huskies. The pressure defense held UConn to a low output while Montrezl Harrell again killed the Huskies dropping twenty-two points in the ten point victory.
The Huskies were projected to finish second in the AAC behind Louisville in preseason predictions so UConn had lived up to projections for the season. Even though there were bumps in the road, UConn also had some nice victories as well to hang their hats on. They drew a 7-seed in the NCAA tournament, way lower than I thought they should be. A team they beat twice, Cincinnati, earned a 5-seed somehow, yet UConn was a 7-seed. Doesn’t make any sense to me, but they had to take what they got. It was a good regular season with great play by Shabazz Napier and good yet inconsistent play from DeAndre Daniels to lead the Huskies to a #18 finish in the polls before tournament time.
The Huskies first round matchup was against a St. Joe’s team who was coming off a hot streak and winning the A-10 tournament. The Huskies struggled all night rarely leading the matchup. But they took a late lead with around five minutes left but Joe’s quickly responded. Shabazz Napier had a chance at the end of regulation to win it but the shot didn’t fall. The game was headed to OT where UConn and Napier took over the game getting to the line. They went a perfect 15-15 from the line in OT to hold on for a victory and a chance to play former Big East foe, Villanova.
The Big East tourney champs and 2-seed Villanova Wildcats is a team that likes to shoot the ball. So, UConn game planned for this and got up all over the shooters right from the start. After a low scoring and tight first half, UConn poured in 52 second half points on the back of big shots from Shabazz Napier. The Huskies forced sixteen Villanova turnovers while holding them to only 35% from the field and deep. This and their ability to out-rebound the Wildcats was the key to victory as UConn won 77-65 with 25 points coming from Napier. The Huskies pulled off the upset by playing tight defense and not letting the shooters breathe which led to turnovers and easy buckets for UConn. Now the Huskies went on to face a high potent Iowa State team in the Sweet 16.
Iowa State was surprisingly Big 12 champions on the back of some great offensive play from Georges Niang, DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim. They were tops in the NCAA in many offensive categories but heading into the Sweet 16 matchup the Cyclones would be without their X-Factor Niang due to a fractured foot. The Huskies jumped out to an early lead on Iowa State, helped by some huge Napier 3’s. DeAndre Daniels came to play in this game early on as he was hitting his shot. The Huskies had a ten point halftime lead holding the Cyclones to 26 points. DeAndre Daniels continued his great play in the second half hitting his first six shots and was UConn’s only offense. With about eleven minutes remaining the Huskies had a seventeen point lead (49-32), only to see it dwindle all the way down to four with just two minutes left. Dustin Hogue was killing the Huskies inside as he had 34 points on the night and kept Iowa State well in the game. UConn held onto their lead and forced ISU to start fouling and that’s where the game was put away. Foul shooting is UConn’s biggest strength as they went 20-22 from the line while ISU was a mere 6-15; the key difference in the game. DeAndre Daniels was the X-Factor as he shot 10-15 from the field finishing with 27 points and 10 rebounds to help secure yet another upset victory for UConn. This improbable run continued with this victory and now UConn was headed to the Elite 8 to face the heavily favored Michigan State squad.
The Huskies walked into the Elite 8 beating the 10-seeded Saint Joe’s, 2-seeded Villanova and 3-seeded Iowa State, a tough road for a resilient team. Many people had UConn losing to Saint Joe’s and now they were playing for a spot in the Final 4. Michigan State was stronger than any team they had faced all season. The Huskies jumped out to a big lead early because of great defense and good shooting from their guards. UConn’s key to winning the other three games was suffocating defense and forcing turnovers for easy buckets. On this day, they did just that too. After jumping out though, Michigan State roared back like the champion they were and UConn’s shots started missing. Heading into the break, UConn was down 25-21 and reeling a little bit. UConn fell down 32-23 in the second half and things started looking rough. That’s when Kemba Walker, oh damn sorry, I mean Shabazz Napier, sorry I get them confused, I mean look at Napier this season, isn’t that Kemba of 2011? Exactly. Napier took the game over in the second half scoring 17 of his 25. UConn tied the game up with 12 minutes left at 32 then didn’t look back going up 49-39 with just under seven left. Michigan State cut the lead to 51-49 with just under a minute left and they were playing for a stop and the ball. Napier iso’ed himself and took a three that left wide but, he was fouled on the play. Now, the best FT shooting team in the tourney, with the best shooter on the team, was at the line to ice the game, and of course, he hit all three shots giving UConn a 5 point lead with 37 seconds left. The key to this game was turnovers, which UConn forced 16 of them and took advantage by getting easy layups which masked their poor shooting on the day. Kevin Ollie also drew up a great game plan for game changer Adriean Payne. The moment he touched the ball inside, he was swallowed up by a double team forcing inaccurate passes and miscues. Defense and foul shooting got UConn this far and both these things kept them alive again, giving them their 5th Final Four Appearance since 1999.
The Huskies improbable run continued after yet another upset vs. a great Michigan State team. They beat the A-10, Big East, Big 12 and Big Ten Champs to get this far and now had to face the SEC Champs and best team in the Nation, the Florida Gators. The Gators were riding a thirty game win streak with their last loss coming to UConn way back in early December on Napier’s buzzer beater. The game started off with Florida taking control and showing they were the top dog. UConn could not hit a shot and Florida was finding its rhythm. After opening up down 16-4, UConn hit four shots in a row including 3 threes to cut the lead to one in a matter of minutes. UConn finished the half strong leading 25-22 with a lot of help from DeAndre Daniels. UConn came out in the second half and built their lead steadily through great defensive play. UConn built a 10 point lead with five minutes remaining and Florida had one last gasp cutting the lead to six but never any closer. UConn ended up icing the game with those clutch foul shots and great defense. People before the game thought that Scottie Wilbiken was the best point guard in the nation, well, Shabazz Napier owned him every time he defended Scottie, taking his cookies at least three times. If anyone wasn’t agreeing that Napier was the best point in the nation they were just plain stupid. The guards, Napier and Boatright, owned the Florida guards only allowing only 14 points and 3 assists while forcing 11 turnovers. The Huskies’ D held Florida to one made three (the first shot of the game) and only 38% shooting. DeAndre Daniels yet again was a huge key in the victory dropping 20 points and 10 boards leading the way. Shabazz Napier labeled him the X-Factor for UConn’s success in the tourney and of course, throughout this run, Daniels was playing his best basketball. The Huskies were now headed to the title game, the first time ever for a 7-seed, to play the young and red hot Kentucky Wildcats with the new ‘Fab Five’.
UConn was 3-0 all-time in title games coming into the showdown with Kentucky and this wasn’t about to be blemished. Kentucky matched up well versus the smaller Connecticut team. Kentucky had length at every position which would force UConn to play its best basketball on this night. The game started slow with each team tied at 6 five minutes in, then Boatright hit two foul shots to make the score 8-6 UConn. The lead would not change after that. Shabazz and UConn struck, going on an 11-2 run to take a 17-8 lead. Shabazz Napier was hot in the first half with 16 points including 3 threes. UConn surprisingly was controlling the game so far and even the glass which was unexpected given Kentucky’s size advantage. Shabazz hit a big three with four minutes left in the half to give UConn a 33-20 lead but UK coach Calipari answered the hot shooting with a zone defense. The Wildcats were able to chip away at the lead before half cutting it to 35-31. The second half started off slow with UConn maintaining a slight lead all the way. Back and forth basketball was played the rest of the way. But every time Kentucky got with in one basket the resilient Huskies always found a way to respond. Neils Giffey hit two huge threes in the second half while Napier added another of his own. Again, the story of this game was UConn’s defense limiting star Julius Randle’s touches and letting the guards play suffocating defense. Even though this game was always close, it felt like the Huskies had it. Every time something went well for Kentucky, UConn had an answer. Whether it was a big shot, rebound or stop, UConn found a way to keep the momentum either on their side or even. With 25 seconds left Lasan Kromah hit two fouls shots (surprise, surprise) and gave UConn a 60-54 and after that the clock ran out and UConn had done the improbable…. They were only 7-seed ever, EVER, to win a national championship.
Everything almost felt like it could have come crashing down in the ’12-13 season after the postseason ban was placed. The legend Calhoun was no longer there to hold down the fort through this and really, UConn basketball was in jeopardy. The moving to the disrespected AAC didn’t help either. But, this team was resilient. That’s the best word to describe them. Resilient. In many ways, this team reminded many of the 2011 Huskies. But in a lot of ways, they weren’t. The 2011 team also was improbable but they also didn’t go through the same road that this 2014 team did. The postseason ban, the new coach and the conference change all were obstacles that these kids had to get over together. The whole season seems like a cliché movie but it’s a reality. Shabazz Napier was the man as everyone knows now. Ryan Boatright played the best basketball of his life, especially on defense and DeAndre Daniels also had the best six game stretch of his career too. Everything came together at the perfect time for Connecticut and they took advantage of the opportunity and shocked the world. After the Kemba championship, I always thought that was the UConn team I would always love the most but this 2014 team easily takes the cake. This team was awesome. This team was so great to watch and be a part of throughout this season. UConn’s journey this year was astounding and no one (at least Huskie nation) will ever forget it. Thank you to Kevin Ollie, Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, and DeAndre Daniels especially for making this so great and keeping the pride of basketball in Connecticut. Your Connecticut Huskies, 2014 National Champions, just let it sink in…….
The underdog story came true, and UConn basketball is alive and well. Yes, we are losing Shabazz, the heart and soul of this team and the sole reason they were even in the place they were. But, Ryan Boatright took leaps in progress this season and DeAndre Daniels has another season too to make huge steps. Also, who knows what ceiling Amidah Brimah has? Seriously love that kid and think he can be great, and of course, Rodney Purvis. For those who don’t know Rodney Purvis, get to know him because he is going to be huge for UConn next season. UConn basketball could now just be peaking again with another great season in store. Can’t wait…. Repeat?!?!?