STORRS, Conn. - If you aren’t from these parts, it would be hard to understand what happened at Gampel Pavilion Saturday. Even if you are a lifelong Huskies fan, it might be difficult to put the emotions into words.
There has been little to celebrate in the rough and calloused world of UConn basketball the past year or so. And the Huskies limped into their final regular-season contest Saturday on a three-game losing streak with no one sure exactly how many scholarship players would be available to coach Kevin Ollie.
One starter was on crutches. Another could no longer bear the pain in his shooting wrist. The first guy off the bench had his finger in a splint. UConn’s leading scorer was just wondering if he could walk without the protective boot on his foot. He wasn’t contemplating a 44-minute assignment.
Just for kicks, earlier in the week, someone stole UConn’s conference away, leaving the program with a very uncertain future – even quicker than anticipated. With all that depressing news serving as a backdrop, no one would have been surprised if the Huskies had rolled over, taken a double-digit loss, and moved on to the next chapter – whatever that might be.
Who knew the Huskies would set a school record with their seventh overtime game of the season and pull out a 63-59 victory?
Who knew UConn’s magnificent backcourt of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier would combine for 39 points? Who knew Napier would test his injured foot in warm-ups and decide 30 minutes before tipoff that he wanted to play? Who knew Boatright would run that isolation play into the lane – the one where Ollie called Boatright’s number dozens of times this season – and execute it to perfection for the biggest play of the game?
And who could have predicted a postgame ceremony that celebrated heart, and pride, and playing for the purest reasons of all, would actually reduce a few UConn players to tears?
Like we said, you’ve really got to be from these parts to understand. The emotion that poured out onto the Gampel Pavilion Saturday afternoon was exactly what we had come to expect from this very special team.
“I’m just sentimental,” said Napier after a courageous performance that resulted in 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four steals. “I saw R.J. [Evans] crying and it just him me that we’re not playing any more. It just hit me. I was crying in the locker room. It just hits me.
“I cried when Coach [Jim] Calhoun left [in September]. I’m just one of them guys, I feel passionate about whatever I’m doing. I feel passionate about this team. I just started tearing up.”
As the buzzer sounded to give UConn its 20th victory, Napier grabbed the basketball and then hurled it into the student seating section. After going through the handshake line with a Providence team that may have had its NCAA hopes smashed in defeat, the Huskies stood together to watch a highlight video.
Briefly, it reminded me of two years ago in Houston, when Kemba Walker and his teammates stood on the championship podium and watched their “One Shining Moment” video that honored a third national title for UConn.
It was the same, but also very different.
Athletic director Warde Manuel presented the team with a plaque. For what, you say?
The framed proclamation read, in part: “It is with great Husky pride that we recognize your tireless dedication and your constant commitment to the university, the fans and the community.”
Call it Team Appreciation Day. That’s the way it will always be remembered.
Manuel thanked Jim Calhoun for recruiting a “great point guard” who has become his coach. That former point guard, Ollie, thanked Manuel for “giving me a chance.” Manuel told the crowd, “We might be changing conferences, but we’re still going to be great.”
And then Ollie left the crowed with two words, “It’s possible.” He said this team proved you can do whatever you want to do.
“It’s special because of what those kids went through when nobody believed in them,” Ollie said. “When [other players] left, they stayed as a brotherhood. This is the only brotherhood I know. UConn is the only brotherhood I know.
“I told them, ‘Now you are part of something special.’ And they’re always going to remember this. When people said we’re down and out and they were doubting us, we showed the toughness that Coach Calhoun started here. We’re going to keep showing it. That’s what we’re about.”
Connecticut had nothing to play for this season. That’s what all the experts said. The college basketball program that won three national championships from 1999-2011 had been banned from the NCAA tournament and was told to take a hike by the Big East Conference. (By the way, how ironic is that? Those presidents and chancellors who told the Huskies to stay away from Madison Square Garden are all running away to new conferences and leaving UConn behind as the only charter member - in a conference with no name.)
From the day the schedule was released, we knew March 9 would be the end of the road. No one knew exactly how that would feel. But instead of arranging for a funeral, the Huskies held a party. They walked off with tears of joy, not sadness.
This will be the team remembered for providing living proof that Ollie was the man for the job. He was given a temporary deal in September. By late December, Manuel was convinced Ollie needed the contract extension that would allow him to do his job in all facets – not just on the court
“I’m thrilled and so appreciative of the effort,” Manuel said Saturday. “I knew he would work hard and the other coaches would work hard. You knew the student-athletes would work hard. But given everything Kevin started with, everything with the team and all the transition, I’m beaming today. I really am.
“What a great way to finish the season and another chapter in our history. It was a great chapter.”
Ollie said his first step into the preseason would be attending church on Sunday morning – to give thanks for this season. There is plenty of work ahead but this offseason will not have the chaotic tone of last season. That should be guaranteed.
Napier, Boatright, and possibly DeAndre Daniels, will look into the crystal ball provided by the NBA. All three will have decisions to make, although it really seems all three would benefit from an extra season.
And that could be a truly special season.
“I couldn’t be happier for this group,” Ollie said. “Hopefully, they stay together because the future is so bright.”
It’s been a while since UConn heard those words. On Saturday, that was worth celebrating.