Kevin Ollie made NCAA champion UConn believe

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Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie directs action against Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie directs action against Kentucky during the first half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 7, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. Photo Credit: AP / Eric Gay

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Greg Logan Newsday columnist Greg Logan

Greg Logan is a college sports and boxing writer for Newsday.

ARLINGTON, Texas - This was at Madison Square Garden, where Kevin Ollie was in his comfort zone just after leading Connecticut to the Final Four, and the Huskies' second-year coach was on fire, preaching to the choir.

Ollie said a lot of things that day, important things that told the story of his ascension as Jim Calhoun's hand-picked successor from interim coach of a team on academic probation and a basketball program at the crossroads to worthy leader of the UConn family built by Calhoun. One thing stood out above all.

"I knew what I had," Ollie said. "I had faith in my players, I had a great coaching staff and my belief in God. I knew God was going to give me a way out of no way."

This was not "team of destiny" stuff, confusing sports and religion. This was the gospel according to a basketball survivor of 13 years in the NBA and maybe a dozen 10-day contracts, preaching to the players who stuck with him when Calhoun stepped down, who believed and stayed the course.

Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey were among those who chose that road. It led them to the championship podium Monday night at AT&T Stadium, where the Huskies won their fourth national championship and showed their fiber in a 60-54 victory in which they refused to yield the lead for even one second to Kentucky's freshman phenoms.

When the buzzer went off, Napier collapsed to the floor, knowing a title prophecy he made to his teammates after the Huskies lost the first of three games to defending national champion Louisville had been fulfilled and that he needed to express what that meant. He got to the podium, called the crowd of 79,238 to attention and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us."

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He wasn't trying to insult the NCAA or excuse the poor academic progress rate that kept Connecticut out of postseason play in Ollie's first season. Napier was talking about the faith it took to overcome all of that.

"Coach Ollie told us, 'This is going to be a two-year plan,' " Napier said, "and since that day on, we believed . . . I'm being real humble and not trying to be cocky, but when you believe something so much, you understand what may happen in certain situations."

For UConn, faith in the improbable became a sense of the inevitable. It was comparable to Jim Valvano's 1983 North Carolina State team that was the last team to win its first NCAA Tournament game in overtime and win the title, as the Huskies did.

When the Huskies actually won the East Regional that day at the Garden, passion overflowed in Ollie. He touched on all the tenets of Calhounism: belief that the name on the front of the jersey matters more than the name on the back, the brotherhood's adherence to the acronym "FIST," which stands for "Fight, Identity, State, Togetherness," and something Ollie called the "One More Club," meaning they want to do one more thing than their opponent.

Questioned that day about UConn's 18-for-18 second-half performance at the foul line in beating Michigan State, Ollie said, "When we get up to the free-throw line, that's our toughness. It don't have to be a wrestling match. We use our toughness mentally."

That toughness broke Kentucky and coach John Calipari Monday night. Down by four with 1:08 left, Calipari allowed UConn to run the clock down rather than start fouling to create extra possessions.

Calipari, who described his team as "scared" and "rattled" by UConn, said, "You could say, 'Why not foul?' Because they didn't miss any free throws. They weren't going to miss a free throw."

The Huskies were 10-for-10 at the line, including the final two points from benchwarmer Lasan Kromah with 25 seconds left.

"They believed in the vision before anybody saw it," Ollie said of his players. "They stuck with it through down times. I think that's the beautiful thing for me about this championship when I reflect on it, those guys' toughness, but also their togetherness."

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