ARLINGTON, Texas -- On the grandest stage of all, the Connecticut men’s basketball team grabbed the spotlight and sent an emphatic message to the rest of the country.
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 Florida Gators.
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 American Athletic Conference, especially after a 33-point loss at Louisville to end the regular season.
But under second-year Coach Kevin Ollie, the Huskies lifted themselves off the floor and found their groove in the postseason. They lost to Louisville by 10 points in the AAC title game, but have played increasingly better throughout the NCAA Tournament.
First, UConn overcame St. Joseph’s with an overtime win. Next, the Huskies beat No. 2-seeded Villanova before moving to Madison Square Garden for the East Regional semifinals.
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 Gampel Pavilion, a buzzer-beating shot by Shabazz Napier lifting UConn.
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 Kemba Walker. He took a lesson from that spring that he imparted on his teammates this year.
“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 NBA for 13 seasons, earning 10-day or, at best, one-year contracts, scratching for every crumb as a professional player.
Jim Calhoun, the man who built the program and delivered three national titles to Connecticut, handpicked Ollie as his successor. Ollie inherited a complicated job, taking over a program barred from postseason play by the NCAA last season and competing in a new -- and diminished -- conference.
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 Niels Giffey gave UConn its first lead late in the half, and the Huskies took a 25-20 lead into intermission.
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.
“One more,” Napier said. “It is not over yet. One more. We believe in each other, we have faith in each other, and we have just one more to go.”