Although the Connecticut Huskies ended the season as the national champions and the number one team in the nation, the season was not flawless. During the season, the team went through a lot of ups and downs. Throughout the season, the team was led by their guards, which was one of the best units in the country. Although the guards were the most important part of the team and led the team to the championship, the improvement of the front court players drastically improved their chances and allowed them to compete with bigger and more physical teams.
The Huskies were unable to compete in the tournament last season because the NCAA banned them from postseason competition. Since the Huskies were unable to meet the minimum APR score, which is calculated by analyzing the grade point average of the team and the graduation percentage of the team, they were on academic probation. Although the Huskies were national champions two seasons prior to the 2012-2013 season, a few players did not want to stay on the Connecticut squad. Many players, such as Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith, two important contributors to the national championship team, did not want to waste a year of eligibility and questioned Kevin Ollie as a coach. Oriakhi, if he did not enter the 2013 draft, and Smith would have been starters on the current team because of their experience and skill. The duo would have added depth to the roster, which was devoid of talented big men. Although the duo left the school, Ollie was able to convince Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey, and Ryan Boatright to remain on the team because of their potential. Prior to the season, the Huskies were ranked 18th in the AP top 25 because of their experience and talented back court led by then starters Napier and Omar Calhoun. At the beginning of the season, Ollie started a small lineup with Napier, Calhoun, Boatright, Daniels, and Phillip Nolan. On the bench, the Huskies had Amida Brimah, Niels Giffey, Terrence Samuel, Lasan Kromah, and Tyler Olander.
Connecticut started the season with a non-conference matchup against Maryland. The game was similar to many of the other games at the start of the season for Connecticut because it went down to the wire, but Shabazz Napier was able to lead them to a win during almost every situation. Napier led the team with 18 points and the team won 77-76, the second most points allowed in a regulation game. After the win against the Terps, the Huskies were able to win their next three games comfortably against Yale, Detroit, and Boston. The Huskies headed into their contest with Boston College and Indiana ranked 18th in the country. Although both games were decided by a combined 3 points, it showed that the Huskies had a lot of heart and had the “clutch gene” to win close and pressure filled games. During the two games, the Huskies were led by Napier, who scored at least 20 points in each game.
The two wins propelled the Huskies to the 13th ranking and a 6-0 record. The Huskies defeated Loyola and brought their 12th ranked and 7-0 record to their game against the 15th ranked Florida Gators. Like the other games, the Huskies were able to win at the buzzer on a last second shot by Shabazz Napier. Napier was huge during the game and led the team with 26 points. This game was the biggest win of the regular season because it gave the Huskies confidence that they could beat any team in the nation during their tough stretches in the middle of the season. The wins against the Gators and Maine propelled Connecticut to the 10th ranking and a 9-0 record. The team took their undefeated record into a neutral court game against the Stanford Cardinals.
However, the team would not leave undefeated and they suffered their first loss of the season, 53-51. Shabazz had a horrible game and finished with only 12 points on 5-13 shooting. Along with Napier, Calhoun went 1-8 and Boatright was 3-11. The lone bright spot was DeAndre Daniels, who finished with 15 points, 4 blocks, and shot 60% from the field. Daniels was huge for the Huskies for most of the season because he has incredible talent and size, which allows him to play guard multiple positions and score from all around the court. The loss to Stanford started a bad stretch of games for the club. Although the loss looked bad at the time, Stanford showed during the NCAA tournament that they have a lot of talent and were a quality club.
After the loss, the Huskies were able to regroup and win their next two games against Washington and Eastern Kentucky. During their non-conference schedule, the Huskies finished 11-1 and started their conference schedule with two games in Texas against Houston and SMU. The team probably wished they never headed to the Lone Star state because they were unable to win either of the games. Although SMU proved to be a good team, Houston was horrible this season. The two losses dropped Connecticut out of the top 25 and former starter, Omar Calhoun, was placed at the end of the bench and was not given much playing time toward the end of the season. The lone bright spot of the trip was that Kevin Ollie took the team to AT&T Stadium, the location of the Final Four. He told his team during that trip that they would make it back to the Cowboys Stadium in order to play for the national championship.
The team returned to Storrs and beat Harvard and Central Florida before their games against 17th ranked Memphis and 18th ranked Louisville. Although the Huskies were down at the half, Connecticut was able to upset the Tigers, which gave them confidence and their 14th win of the season. During the game, Daniels was great and posted a double-double, while Napier scored 17 points. After the win at Memphis, Connecticut returned home to play the Cardinals, but lost by double digits. This was the first of three losses to Louisville. During the game, Napier was able to score 30, but no one else was able to score more than 10 points. After the loss to Louisville, the Huskies were able to win their next three games against Temple, Rutgers, and Houston, three of the worst teams in the conference. The team improved to 17-4 after their 3 game winning streak and returned inside the rankings.
The team headed into a big game against the 7th best team in the nation, Cincinnati. Although the team played well against the great Cincy defense, the Bearcats held on and beat the Huskies by the score of 63-58. After the loss, the Huskies went on a four game winning streak by beating Central Florida, South Florida, Memphis, and Temple. The game against Memphis was fantastic as they were ranked 20th and the game went into overtime before UConn was able to pull the victory out. After the four game winning streak, the Huskies returned home to play the SMU Mustangs, but lost their second straight game to the Mustangs. Like the Louisville Cardinals, UConn was horrible against SMU as 5 of their 8 losses were against these two teams. Both games were not very close as the Mustangs, led by Larry Brown, beat the Huskies by 9 points. The Mustangs were able to play great defense against the Huskies, especially against Shabazz. Connecticut shot only 33% from the field and Shabazz combined for only 27 points.
After the loss to the Mustangs, the Huskies went on a three game winning streak against South Florida, Cincinnati, and Rutgers. The win against the Bearcats was huge for the Huskies because it gave them another great win as they were ranked 11th before the loss. UConn headed into their regular season finale against the Cardinals with the number 19 ranking and a 24-6 record. However, the Huskies wished they never had to play the Cardinals. The game was an absolute disaster for Connecticut as the game was never very close. If the Cardinals only showed up for the second half, they still would have beat UConn. The loss to Louisville put a serious dent in the Huskies momentum and many believed that they would falter early in the AAC Championship and NCAA tournament.
However, the Huskies were able to respond and made the finals of the AAC tournament. During the quarters and semifinals, the Huskies defeated the Memphis Tigers for the third time this season and barely eked out a win against the Bearcats by 2 points. During the tournament, the comparisons between Napier and Kemba Walker started to grow as they both are small scoring point guards that had the leadership to will teams to victories. Unlike Walker, Napier was unable to lead the Huskies to their conference title as they lost to Louisville for the third time this season. However, it was the best game they played against the Cardinals, which gave the team confidence heading into the NCAA tournament. The Huskies were able to finish the regular season with a 26-8 record and were ranked 21st before the tournament. The team MVP was Napier, who averaged 18 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, and won the AAC Player of the Year award. Along with Napier, Daniels and Boatright had good seasons as they both averaged more than 10 points per game.
Although Connecticut was confident that they would receive a bid to the tournament, they were worried about their seed as they did not have a strong non-conference schedule and did not record many top 25 wins. When the committee released the bracket on Selection Sunday, they pitted St. Joesph’s against Connecticut in the second round of the tournament. Although the Huskies were a seven seed, many experts were picking against UConn because St. Joes were hot and many questioned the Huskies ability to win. Although the Huskies were not great during the regular season, they had the components to win a national title. Like many other teams that succeeded during the tournament, the Huskies were led by a their guards, played great defense, and had talented, athletic rim protectors in the front court.
The game against St. Joes would be a precursor to the rest of the tournament. Although the Huskies were down by as many as 9 during the first half, they were able to lower the deficit to 5 by the end of the first half. Over the next 20 minutes of play, the game was extremely close and neither team was able to create a big lead. Although most of the game went through the center Halil Kanaevic because he is a talented passer, Langston Galloway was the main scorer for the team and posted 25 points during the game. Although Shabazz was the star of the game and scored 24 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals, Amida Brimah had the play of the game. Down by three with 43 seconds, Shabazz Napier missed a runner, but Brimah was able to collect the offensive rebound and score, while obtaining the foul. Although Brimah is a bad foul shooter, he was able to convert free throw to tie the game. Also, the foul on Kanacevic was his fifth and final foul. St. Joes missed the shot at the buzzer and the game went into overtime. In overtime, the Huskies took over from the free throw line, especially Shabazz Napier. 14 of Connecticut’s 19 points were by free throws and Napier scored 9 points. During the game, Connecticut shot 90% from the line, which allowed them to separate from the Eagles. During the second half, the Huskies were able to lock down on defense and stop the Eagles, which allowed them to return in the game.
After the game, the Huskies were set to play the Villanova Wildcats. Many believed that the Huskies could beat the Wildcats because they had more talent than Villanova and they were not playing well. Although the Huskies were hot after the overtime win, they started the game very slowly. During the first 9 and half minutes of play, the Huskies found themselves in a 19-9 deficit and their leader, Shabazz, was in foul trouble and forced to sit. However, the Huskies were able to shut down the Nova offense and they held them to only 5 points during the rest of the half. Along with their great defense, the Kromah, Samuel, Boatright, and Daniels stepped up and led UConn to a 25-24 lead at the half. During the second half of the game, Napier took over the game and scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half. Each time the Wildcats were attempting a comeback, Napier, Daniels, and Boatright were able to stop the effort and held onto a 12 point win, which gave them a bid to the sweet sixteen and a trip to Madison Square Garden. Besides Napier, four other players, Samuel, Kromah, Daniels, and Boatright scored in double figures and Giffey added 11 rebounds in the winning effort. After the win over Nova, the Huskies returned back to the Garden. Since the Big East played their conference tournament at the Garden, Connecticut had many great games and great wins.
Although the Iowa State Cyclones were many experts’ pick to reach the Elite Eight and possibly the Final Four, they lost their starting center Georges Niang in the second round due to a broken foot. Niang was a huge loss for the Cyclones because he is a good defensive player and has the ability to score from all over the court. The game had many interesting match-ups like the point guard battle between Kane and Napier and the small forward battle between Ejim and Daniels. Fortunately for the Huskies, they were able to win both match-ups and eventually the game. Daniels had the game of his life, while recording 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Daniels was able to hold the Big 12 player of the year, Ejim, to only 7 points on 3-13 shooting. Napier put up 19 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds while Kane put up 16 points on 6-18 shooting. Although Dustin Hogue drastically outplayed Ryan Boatright and scored 34 points, Connecticut outperformed Iowa State on the free throw line, like many other teams. UConn shot 20-22 (91%) from the line while the Cyclones shot only 6-15 (40%). Unlike the other games, Connecticut was able to jump out to an early lead and extended their lead throughout the game. Although the Cyclones made a run late to tighten the score, the Huskies ultimately won 81-76.
Like many times before, UConn used the Garden crowd to lead them to a huge win to the Elite Eight against the Michigan State Spartans. Although many believed that the Huskies had a great chance of winning the previous three games, they received very little support before their game against the Spartans. Many believed that the Spartans were the best team in the tourney because they had every aspect of a championship team. Although the Huskies were able to reach out to a quick 12-2 lead, the Spartans did not give up and took a 25-21 game at the half. The Spartans were hitting threes and forced the Huskies to take bad shots at the end of the shot clock. After the half, the Spartans got off to a quick start and pushed the lead to 9 (32-23) points before the Huskies turned around their game. The Huskies started playing the type of basketball that would lead them to the National title. The Huskies started playing suffocating defense by stopping drives, forcing the Spartans to shoot jumpers, and using their interior length to alter shots inside the paint. On offense, the team starting shooting the three effectively, driving into the lane, and shooting free throws at a record pace. Over the next ten minute stretch, the Huskies were able to outscore the Spartans by 19 points and put together a 10 point lead. Although the Spartans cut the lead to 2 with 2 minutes, the Huskies were able to make every clutch play, stop the Spartans on offense, and make their free throws to solidify their trip to the Final Four. Although the Huskies shot only 35% from the field, they shot 21-22 from the line (95%), held the Spartans 39% from the field, and the Spartans scored only 7 field goals inside the arc. While Shabazz played great on offense, 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists, Boatright was fantastic on defense by limiting Appling from scoring many points or setting up opposing teammates. Also, he recorded 4 steals and converted on numerous fast break opportunities.
For the first time since Kemba, the Huskies were in the Final Four. The comparisons between Walker and Napier grew because they both led their teams to the Final Four with their will and talent. Like Ollie told his team after their loss to Houston, the Huskies made it to the Dallas and the Final Four. In the Final Four, the Huskies were set to play the number one overall seed and the team with a 30 game winning streak, Florida Gators. However, the Huskies were the last team to beat the Gators. Many believed that the Huskies would be exposed on the glass and the interior because they did not have the size, strength, or experience like the Gators. Many felt the game in December was a fluke and the Huskies should not have won. After the first 11 minutes of the game, the experts looked correct as the Gators took an early 16-4 lead. However, like many times before during the previous four games, the Huskies turned to their defense and three point shooting to get them back in the game. Daniels hit 2 threes, Boatright hit a three, Samuel made a layup and the lead was diminished to only one point. By the end of the half, the Huskies took a 25-22 lead and held the Gators to only 6 points over the final 9 minutes while they scored 21. Although Napier did not have a great half offensively, his ability to stop Scottie Wilbekin’s ball pressure, along with Boatright, forced the offense to crumple. During the first 8 minutes of the second half, the Huskies built a ten point lead because the Gators were unable to stop UConn’s dribble penetration. Although the Gators were able to cut the lead to 3 because of Patric Young’s strength and skill against the inexperience front line, the UConn guards and Daniels were always able to maintain their lead with their feisty on the ball defense, free throw shooting, and alley oops. Although it was a bold maneuver, Ollie went with a small lineup because it allowed them to spread the floor and play pressure defense. Luckily, they were hitting their threes, which forced Billy Donovan to match the small lineup. Also, Wilbekin suffered a nagging injury to his leg, which stopped his explosiveness. Although many feel that it is difficult to shoot in an arena like Cowboys’ Stadium, the Huskies shot 56% against the vaunted Gators’ defense and 77% from the foul line. Although Napier scored only 12 points, he recorded 4 steals and 6 assists. The Huskies were the first 7 seed to ever advance to the final.
In the final, UConn was set to play the Kentucky Wildcats, which were led by 6 McDonalds All Americans. Like the other games, the experts believed that the huge and athletic Wildcats would greatly out rebound the Huskies. However, if Napier wanted to cement his legacy and complete the comparisons with Kemba Walker, he needed to win this game and will the lesser Huskies to a National Championship. Like the other games, the Huskies wanted to play small and fast in order to minimize the size of the Cats. Although the Huskies were able to jump out to a 30-15 with 5 minutes to go in the first half, Calipari switched his defense to a zone in order to stop the speed of Connecticut and use his size. The move was a great move by Calipari and the Cats cut Connecticut’s lead to only 4 at the half. Many believed that the Wildcats would win the game because many of their other games play out similar to this game. However, they never played a team with the same amount of heart and tenacity as UConn. In the second half, Kentucky frequently cut the lead to a one possession game, but were never able to tie or overtake UConn. Ryan Boatright was consistently in the face of the taller Harrison twins. Although Daniels played his worst game of the tournament, Napier made almost every big play on offense and occasionally Boatright or Giffey made a bucket late to seal the win for the team. Napier had a great game, 22 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. Boatright was very effective, 14 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. Like the other games, the Huskies were money from the free throw line, 10-10 while the Wildcats shot only 13-24. Although the Wildcats had a lot more size than the”hungry” huskies, UConn out rebounded the Cats 34-33. Although many thought that Connecticut winning the National Championship would be a pipe dream, they played with more heart, tenacity, and will than any other team in their way. Also, Ollie was great and frequently made bold decisions that paid off in the end. Lastly, they ability to not beat themselves, play great defense, force the opposing teams to shoot from the outside, and make free throws enabled them to win.
Pics and stats from ESPN.com