ARLINGTON, Texas — They took the stairs. They took them one step at a time. They took them one by one when there wasn't anything to play for last season and they were the pariahs of the NCAA. They took them one step at a time even after Louisville smoked them three times this season.
Their coach, this NBA vagabond, this UConn blueblood, kept insisting they take one step at a time through the early victories and a 9-0 start that left them ninth in the national polls. Climbing, climbing, up this skyscraper of a season, huffing and puffing at times, stubbing their toes at other times, even briefly dropping out of the national polls.
"We're going to take the stairs," Kevin Ollie said that day he was hired in September 2012. "Escalators are for cowards."
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Arlington, TX, USA
At 11:18 p.m. Monday back East, Ollie, Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey, yes, this band of remarkable brothers reached the top step. And when they looked down, through the eyes of a Texas night after this 60-54 national championship victory over Kentucky, below them they saw the rest of the college basketball world.
Kentucky. Florida. Michigan State. All of them.
UConn. Kings of college basketball. Again.
At 11:18 p.m. Monday, there were no cowards.
"I'm planning to come back here in April and raise a banner," Ollie told the UConn student section on Senior Night.
I thought he was nuts.
I was nuts for doubting him, for doubting his team.
"The only way you're going to have a blessing is if you believe and have faith," Ollie said after that Senior Night game against Rutgers. "I believe we're going to be back here. I'm going to say it. I believe we are going to win the national championship, and that's the only way I believe. I got faith in my team."
Well, Ollie can raise the banner any time he likes. He took a 7 seed that played as he likes to say at Level 5, five as one, defensively tenacious, poised, matured.
"Somebody said we're Cinderellas," Ollie said. "We're UConn. This is what we do. We're bred to cut down nets."
And so they did.
Over and over and over, Ollie talked about planting seeds and putting in the time and putting in the work. Always talking about seed and harvest. The seed goes first. Then you have the time. Then you have a harvest.
Well, all the seeds were planted. All the work was done. And the harvest was bountiful.
Standing just 10 feet away from me as Shabazz Napier looked into the national TV cameras as confetti fell, there was Khalid El-Amin. Khalid, of course, was one who screamed, "We shocked the world!" when UConn shocked No. 1 Duke that 1999 night in St. Petersburg. And now it was Napier's turn. He told everyone inside AT&T Stadium to listen up. Former presidents, NFL quarterbacks, NBA stars, all sorts of famous folks among the record crowd of 79,238 listened up.
"This is what happens when you ban us!" Napier said.
OMG! Bazz, who scored 22 points and hit four three-pointers on this night, not only was named Most Outstanding Performer, in his last moment of his last game, he banged the NCAA.
"We hungry," Napier said later in explanation. "When you prevent us from trying to go to the postseason and it wasn't our fault, we worked since that day on. Coach Ollie told us this is going to be a two-year plan and since that day we believed. I just wanted to grab everybody's attention and introduce the hungry Huskies. It has been two years."
In recent days, Napier said he had given thought about what he was going to say on national TV after the victory. He said he wanted to be humble and not come off cocky, but he also said he knew the Huskies would win.
"When you believe something so much," Napier said, "you understand what may happen."
The Huskies can be forgiven their defiance. They not only pulled together a remarkable basketball run, they pulled together in the classroom to clean up their academic ratings. They belonged back in the spotlight. And if Napier, who leaves with two national championships, had a final message for the world, good for him.
"We didn't come out here to get any revenge or anything like that," Napier said. "We came out here to play. When you have the greatest fans to back you up, you're going to play for them."
The implications of this triumph are historic.
UConn has captured four national titles since 1999. That's twice as many as anybody else.
UConn took a 15-point lead in this one and Kentucky looked to be overmatched. The Huskies looked too quick. They Huskies were far more aggressive. The UConn guards were badly outplaying the Kentucky guards. But John Calipari went zone. Kentucky started hitting threes. The Wildcats clawed their way back into it, but they never took the lead on this night. Not once. Not ever.
They pulled within one. James Young almost pulled down the Jerry Dome with one hellacious dunk. But the Huskies never relinquished the lead.
Shabazz and Niels Giffey hit back-to-back threes. Kentucky missed too many free throws. UConn doesn't miss free throws.
Boatright, who had rolled his ankle moments earlier and was in a bunch of pain, returned and hit one of those Boat Show shot-clock beaters that screamed, "What ankle injury?"
"Heart, man," Boatright said. "I came too far to lose now. I worked too hard all my life to be in this position. I wasn't going to let an ankle sprain stop me."
Boatright would dribble out the clock. And Ollie finally coming out of that defensive stance he seems to take for every game, screamed like a madmen. Boatright dribbled into the backcourt, slammed the ball into court. And as it caromed 15-20 feet in the air, the exclamation point was clear.
UConn! Champions! Again!
"Unbelievable, man" Boatright said. "Unbelievable."
"I said in the beginning, 18 months ago, when we started this process, that the last is going to be first. We always did it together."
All those Ollie-isms, they all mean something today.
"They can ban us from the postseason. They can ban us from the Big East Tournament, but they can't ban us from getting better and loving each other."
They got better. They loved each other. They stand at the top step.
"You don't go through life, you grow through life."
They grew. They grew tall. Boatright, an over-penetrating, sometimes selfish player, turned into a defensive wizard and a selfless player. DeAndre Daniels grew to a player who could sustain a bad start in games. And on and on.
"When you go through trying times, you don't stop trying."
"The ship may not come into land, but we are going to swim right out to it."
"Be phenomenal or be forgotten … Success is never on sale … Greatness begins where selfishness ends."
They all mean something today. They all mean something powerful
Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, John Calipari, five different coaches won eight national championships with Kentucky over the decades. But this is Kevin Ollie's time. This is Shabazz Napier's time. In his first trip as a coach to the NCAA Tournament, in Shabazz's last game, they completed their mission. They took the last step.
"They have been amazing," Ollie said. "They have been resilient. I kept telling you it all started 18 months, when they kept believing and stayed loyal to the program. It was a wonderful feeling to hold that trophy up and do it the right way. We did it the right way for 18 months and we did it the right way in this NCAA Tournament."
Ollie loves to say, "I can see higher on the shoulders of giants." It's one of his favorites.
Well, they stood on each other's shoulders, these Huskies, they leaned on each other and today these Huskies bred to cut down nets all are giants.
The view from the top step is wondrous.