Huskies never lost faith
The day before UConn won its fourth national championship, some players admitted to letting a sliver of doubt creep in.
"We were talking about the possibility of losing this game and going back home as runnerup," senior Niels Giffey said. "After awhile, we were saying let's not talk about that, because that's not an option."
Losing faith in their season-long championship mission was not an option either.
UConn capped an improbable postseason run by beating Kentucky, 60-54, on Monday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
While the Huskies never wavered in their belief that winning a national championship was their destiny despite long odds, they couldn't believe that they actually accomplished that feat.
"It's crazy," sophomore Phil Nolan said. "It's just unbelievable."
Monday's postgame celebration was probably more emotional than after any other UConn championship win because of the program's long journey back from a postseason ban and the team's tight-knit bond.
"They believed in a vision before anybody had seen it," coach Kevin Ollie said. "They stuck with it through the down times. … When we were winning, they stayed together and believed anything it was possible. That's the beautiful thing about this championship for me when I reflect on it, their toughness, but also their togetherness."
Monday's championship marked the last time this UConn basketball brotherhood would play together. The breakup will gradually begin after the Huskies brought home the trophy to show their fans Tuesday during a pep rally at Gampel Pavilion, just like Ollie promised following the regular season home finale on March 5.
The Huskies made it happen through sheer will, determination, mental toughness and defensive grit. They followed their leaders in senior Shabazz Napier, Giffey and junior Ryan Boatright, and brilliantly executed the coaching staff's smart game plans.
They ignored naysayers. Only 0.3 percent of 11 million brackets in ESPN's Men's Tournament Challenge contest picked the Huskies to win the title.
"Nobody had us winning the first game," junior DeAndre Daniels. "No matter what, we always believed in ourselves. The coaching staff always believed in us and never gave up on us. That's why we always kept going and played so hard. I felt like nobody wanted it more than us."
The Huskies knew long before anyone else that they could make the improbable possible.
"We knew it going into the year," Boatright said "We knew we had what it took in that locker room to win a national championship. We hit some bumps in the road… But we stayed with each other and stayed together and we believed in the coaching staff.
"When you've got that close-knit family, it doesn't matter what anybody says. When you've got that, anything is possible."
Every once in a while they needed a reminder. Napier vowed to his teammates following a double-digit home loss to Louisville on Jan. 18 that they would lift the title trophy.
"And it's so surreal that it actually happened," Napier said.
Napier, who was inducted into the Huskies of Honor during the pep rally, and fellow seniors Giffey and Tyler Olander are moving on after becoming the first Huskies to win two national championships. He leaves as one of the greatest players in school history, capping his career by averaging 22.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists and three steals in the NCAA tournament. Valuable reserve Lasan Kromah, a graduate student, also won't return.
UConn could lose at least one other player - junior DeAndre Daniels - who improved his NBA draft stock to the point where he'll likely consider his professional basketball options. Odds favor Boatright returning for his senior year. Neither player gave any definite statement about their future on Monday.
Freshmen Terrence Samuel, Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey gained valuable experience this season. Sophomore Omar Calhoun, who never seemed to fully bounce back from off-season surgery on both hips, is looking forward to a healthy junior season.
"I feel like this has been a learning experience," Calhoun said. "It hasn't been the best year for me. But I definitely see how it feels to win a national championship and I feel like God put me through all of this to see what it really takes. It just made me hungrier to be here again."
UConn will add some talented newcomers, including North Carolina State transfer Rodney Purvis, swingman Daniel Hamilton and junior college guard Sam Cassell, Jr.
It will be very difficult for the Huskies to repeat as national champions. But, as they taught the college basketball world this season, anything is possible.
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