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In the Suburbs / Caught up in Huskie hoopla

Updated 4:52 pm, Thursday, April 10, 2014
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I never read the sports pages -- except when the UConn men or women win championships.

And boy, did I have my reading cut out for me this week!

Tuesday morning, I picked up the Connecticut Post, and the front page paged trumpeted "ALL THAT 'BAZZ: Behind Shabazz Napier, UConn proves the experts wrong with an improbable run to the NCAA title."

The Huskies' men -- longshots when college basketball's March Madness began -- thumped Kentucky Monday night to win their fourth national champinship in 15 years.

Wednesday morning, the Post was equally ebullient, shouting "TITLE IX: Breanna Stewart cuts down the net after the UConn women's basketball team's victory Tuesday night."

The headline carried a double meaning, alluding both to the federal law that opened up competitive athletics to girls and women four decades ago and to the Huskies' ninth national championship, captured with Tuesday night's defeat of Notre Dame.

Before Monday evening, Shabazz Napier could have been some rock star for all I knew. By the end of the game, however, I was singing a different tune. The sharpshooting Shabazz and teammates -- including guard Ryan Boatright -- had upset the youngsters of Kentucky, 60-54. My wife and I were right in there cheering. What a game.

But according to Bill Paxton and Kevin Duffy of The Post in two separate stories, this was more than just a championship game. It was the fulfillment of new coach Kevin Ollie's promise to UConn students and his team from as far back as 2012, when he took over for retiring legendary coach Jim Calhoun.

Wrote Paxton, "Kevin Ollie makes good on his promises. The UConn second-year head coach took the microphone -- an-out-of-character moment -- and told the crowd still lingering around Gampel Pavilion after the final regular home season game that next time they gathered there it would be to celebrate a national championship."

Duffy wrote, "This began on Sept. 17, 2012, the Monday after Jim Calhoun retired ... when a fired-up Kevin Ollie entered the locker room and met with the guys -- now his guys -- for the first time. `The chips were stacked against UConn,' he (Ollie) said. He told them, `Behind every obstacle is an opportunity.'

"He told them" (Duffy added) "they'd be the hardest working team in America. No questions asked."

Paxton pointed out that the road to victory wasn't without major bumps. "UConn almost went belly up before Ollie's words came true," he wrote. "The Huskies suffered their worst loss of the season three days after Ollie's pledge, losing by 33 to Louisville to close the regular season."

From what I read, this is a team that loves its coach, and according to Duffy, "UConn had something extra, something that must have stemmed from the coach."

Paxton echoed that tone and quoted Boatright to put everything in perspective. "Everybody doubted us and we didn't care. ...We believed in each other and the coaching staff, and that's all that matters. ... I don't care what the outsiders say."

Ollie was was recruited by Calhoun two decades ago to play at UConn. Ollie's mother was so impressed by Calhoun's pitch that she agreed to send him 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to UConn for college. When Ollie's professional playing career was over, Calhoun convinced Kevin to return to his alma mater as an assistant coach instad of taking a management job with National Basketball Association's with Oklahoma City Thunder.

Calhoun commented about the new coach's success in a Duffy story. "I never had any question that once he got here, he would fall in love with coaching and teaching. And he loves that more (than expected). Some guys love other things. Kevin loves coaching."

Ollie's major act of triumph on Monday evening was cutting down the basketball net after the game in Dallas. That act was only offset by his team rolling around in confetti.

The victory continued to ripple through the state Tuesday. Excitement was palpable at the Bridgeport school where I teach, and fellow teacher's who are UConn alums were in high spirits.

While the UConn men's team occasionally broke down on a bumpy road to its championship, the women's team was a sleek, powerful machine firing on all cylinders and racing down the highway.

UConn was ranked No. 1 in the nation throughout the season and boasted a veteran team led by Stewart, the nation's best women's player.

The women's title game for the first time pitted two undefeated teams. But Notre Dame was no match for UConn, which ran away in the second half for a 79-58 victory.

That was the icing on Connecticut's cake.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.