ARLINGTON, Texas – Now the past echoes like a thunderclap for Connecticut. It is 2011 again, and the Huskies are unsung and unbeatable, suddenly touched by magic, led by a guard who is refusing to lose. That Final Four was in Texas, too.
They have taken déjà vu to the limit, to the national championship game. It is impossible to exaggerate the similarities, after they blew through Florida on Saturday night 63-53.
That was the national championship team that had to win five Big East tournament games in five days to even get into the tournament. This is the team that had to come back from a postseason ban, had to come back from losing three times to Louisville by a combined 55 points, had to come back from several shaky days.
Shabazz Napier, who is this year’s Kemba Walker: “I’m trying to do what he did, bring us to the promised land. But I’m trying to do it in a different way”
Niels Giffey, who like Napier, played on that team as well as this one: “It’s a similar run we’re on. The similarity between the two years is everybody thought the program was pretty much dead. That what we heard.”
Kevin Ollie, who was an assistant then. “It’s just going through the dark days believing. They just believe in each other. No matter if they’re down, no matter if they’re banned, no matter if they can’t play in the NCAA tournament, they just believe.
“I keep saying, the bigger the problem, the bigger the destiny. We knew this destiny was coming.”
And certainly, the old coach with three national championships to his famous name, sitting in the lower section, across the court from his old team, also did as the Huskies made their move Saturday.
“It’s not that we came back, it’s how we came back. It wasn’t poor play by them it was us being us,” Jim Calhoun would say later, sitting in the Huskies locker room.
“Two thirds of the way through, I got the most involved in the game without saying a word. Just kind of felt the sweat coming, actually. I’m a mile away from Kevin, but I’m thinking, `You’re going to kick yourself in July [if they don’t win] because we can get this one. They can’t match our quickness, and we’re locking them up.”’
Calhoun could not be happier, or prouder. Ollie is his guy, So are many of the players. So, certainly, is the university. It is 2011 all over again. He can see it in their eyes. Only this time, he will be viewing the last act from the stands.
“It’s going to be hard to watch the look on these kids’ faces down the stretch. Shabazz, who is like a half-son to me. Kevin, who is probably like a son,” he said.
“How much a greater thing can you ask for than to watch the dreams you had for them start to come true for them?”
They have gone where no one like them has ever gone before. Did anybody see the Huskies coming? And now, can anybody stop them?
Florida certainly couldn’t Saturday, its defense shredded, its 30-game winning streak shattered, its No. 1 ranking ruined. When the Huskies ere done, it was hard to decide which was the bigger surprise.
That they could score only four points in the first 11 minutes, fall behind 16-4, then outscore a 36-2 opponent 59-37 from there.
That they could slice apart the Gators defense so. Connecticut shot 55.8 percent, one reason being that of 14 second-half field goals, nine were layups or dunks, and only one from any distance. If Florida wanted to double-team Napier, fine. He would just keep coming off pick-and-rolls and finding open teammates, “I don’t know if y’all keep thinking it’s a one-man team,” Ollie said. “But it’s not.”
That the defense of Napier and Ryan Boatright would make life so miserable for Florida’s backcourt, especially tournament leading scorer Scottie Wilbekin, who had no place to go all night and scored four points. A stark sign of what Connecticut did to them: The Gators had 11 turnovers, and only three assists.
“That’s crazy,” Wilbekin said afterward. “That’s not usually what we do. All credit goes to them and their guards.”
Said Ollie, “We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable.”
Or in the bigger and more important picture, that 31-8 Connecticut could go from not being ranked in the top 10 since December to playing for the national championship. That the Huskies would be the first No. 7 seed to play in a title game.
“Even if nobody believes in us,” Boatright said, “We believe in each other.”
More people are now. Even NBA stars. Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki has taken a special liking to fellow German Giffey. “If he wants to come to Monday’s game,” Giffey said, “I think he can get a ticket.”
It should be something to see. Maybe a remarkable and totally unexpected rerun of the past -- of 2011 and Houston -- by a team that is only thinking about the present.
“We want to do the same thing that team did, win a championship,” Napier said. “But at the end of the day, we want to go on our own path.”