ARLINGTON, Texas -- On the grandest stage of all, the
The program left for dead in the wake of conference realignment isn't just alive, it's standing near the top of the mountain. The Huskies took another step in their improbable NCAA tournament run Saturday night with a 63-53 victory over the No. 1 team in the country, the
On Monday night, UConn will play for the national championship at the cavernous AT&T Stadium against eighth-seeded Kentucky. The Huskies will be bidding for their fourth national title and first since 2011.
And like the 2011 climb, this journey is all the sweeter because it was just so unexpected.
UConn (31-8) was never seen as a title contender throughout the inaugural season in the
But under second-year Coach
First, UConn overcame St. Joseph's with an overtime win. Next, the Huskies beat No. 2-seeded
They beat No. 3-seeded Iowa State, upset No. 4-seeded Michigan State and came to the Final Four as a definitive underdog against Florida.
The Gators (36-3) carried a 30-game winning streak to the Dallas Cowboys' stadium. Florida's last loss was at
Still, national prognosticators almost unanimously picked the Gators. Florida, in fact, seemed to distinguish itself from a clustered field of title contenders, and the Gators were considered the team to beat.
Napier, the pride of Roxbury, Mass., was a member of the 2011 team that marched to a title on the back of
"Believe in each other and trust in each other," Napier said. "No pressure, because this is a basketball game."
And here's the thing: Ollie, the ever positive presence on the bench, has injected a powerful level of confidence in his team. Ollie is a former UConn guard who toiled in the
But playing in a stadium that holds about 75,000 for basketball, UConn seemed jittery out of the gate. With a large contingent of blue-and-white-clad fans sprinkled throughout the vast venue, UConn fell behind 16-4, and it seemed like the Gators were poised to glide to a victory.
A few things happened. UConn's defense -- led by guard Ryan Boatright -- stepped up while Florida began missing shots and forcing bad shots. A three-point play by
They finished on a 21-6 run and opened the second half with a 6-0 spurt. Florida would cut the lead to three points with just over 9 minutes to go, but Ollie's team kept its composure.
"A great victory," Ollie said. "We were together, we stayed positive and productive, especially in the first five minutes when they got out to a lead. I'm happy with my student-athletes, how they recovered. . They stayed together and showed some true grit and toughness."
UConn's leader and best player, Shabazz Napier, had 12 points. He impacted the game with a key steal that led to a basket in the second half, and his calm, cool presence kept the Huskies on track when Florida was surging.
'But the Huskies of March and April are a deeper, more diverse team. Forward DeAndre Daniels was the best player on the court, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Daniels shined in the win over Iowa State and is steadily emerging as an NBA prospect.
Boatright, often in Napier's shadow during the season, was immense at both ends of the court, acting as a stopper on defense while delivering 13 points and six rebounds.