HOUSTON — At the end, there was nothing to do but dribble out the last seconds and fate had put the ball in the hands of the coach’s son. A teammate had told Andrew Hurley about how Connecticut’s last national championship game in 2014 ended, with star Shabazz Napier in the final seconds.
“I guess Shabazz spiked the ball and Donovan (Clingan) told me I had to keep the tradition going if I was in,” Hurley said. That’s why the Huskies’ 76-59 title win ended with Hurley spiking the ball high into the NRG Stadium air. “I feel like I’m going to wake up tomorrow and none of this has happened.”
Oh, but it did. “Obviously a dream come true for all of us,” his father and coach Dan would say afterward. And the last seconds could not have been more fitting. Because Connecticut basketball has turned into one long victory parade of national champions — five in all now — each group feeling a part of the next. No place has been better at that lately, which was the unmistakable message these Huskies and all their predecessors wanted to send Monday night.
Now Connecticut truly belongs. Not that the Huskies didn’t already.
The legion of college basketball royalty, that is. The penthouse, the A-listers. The — yeah, here comes the tag — blue bloods. When that last moniker gets mentioned, the same names invariably come first. Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, Indiana, Michigan State, Villanova.
Funny how long it often takes to get to Connecticut, if it’s gotten to at all.
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“I always thought we fit in with them,” Huskies’ guard Jordan Hawkins had said the other day. “I don’t know who was not calling it a blue blood. They kind of have to be a blue blood."
Especially after Monday night.
It is a matter of simple mathematics. Count the trophies, while you still can with only one hand.
This was a loud affirmation of Connecticut’s place in college basketball. UConn won its first national championship in 1999. There have been four more since. That’s five in 24 NCAA tournaments. During that same stretch, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, UCLA and Indiana have won four titles combined. UCLA and Indiana have won none.
The Huskies are now 5-0 in title games and their 10-1 Final Four record — 90.9 percent — is the highest in NCAA tournament history. They’re also now 8-0 in Final Four games played in the state of Texas.
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Yeah, it would seem there needs to be a place card at the knights of the roundball table with Connecticut on it. And that’s what they wanted to say when it was over Monday night, Huskies both current and former.
Standing with a piece of the net after scoring 19 points, Tristen Newton.
“I think this game right here silenced all the doubts. I don’t know why there were any. We’re here, we won the whole thing, so doubts be gone.”
Not far away, teammate Hawkins: “National champion. Nobody could take that away from me ever.”
Having moved from the stands to the court to share in the moment, Kemba Walker, the hero of 2011’s championship march:
“There’s no doubt. We’ve got five. We’re top tier. There’s too much history here. Three different coaches, same program.
“These guys brought back so many memories.”
Sitting in his press conference afterward, Dan Hurley describing what had happened to the four previous national championship trophies about 18 months ago:
“We got them out of our offices and said we don’t want any trophies in here until we’ve got our own. When you’re at a place like that it’s a little bit empty until you feel like you can join the club.
“I feel like now we’ve held up our end of the bargain.”
Just as he had vowed to do when he arrived in 2018.
“It feels great to come through on promises made by me to all the great people of Connecticut, and then we have these guys,” he said. “This was our vision. This was our dream.
“We do it without cheating, we do it without lying. It’s truly been building a program and a culture.”
As the victory confetti — blue and white, of course — rained down upon the Huskies they could claim not only a fifth championship but one of the more dominating NCAA tournament runs in recent memory. The 17-point conquest of San Diego State completed a barnstorming tour that saw six NCAA tournament victories by an average margin of 20 points. The closest game was 13. No champion had been able to say that since Indiana 42 years ago.
They held all six tournament opponents under 40 percent shooting. They trailed only 5:22 of 160 minutes from the Sweet 16 on. They finished 17-0 against non-conference opponents.
NASA is just down the road from NRG Stadium. The Artemis II crew members headed toward the moon were introduced Monday night, matter of fact. Appropriate, it turned out. Connecticut blasted through the past month like an Atlas V rocket.
“We knew we were the best team coming into the tournament,” Hurley said. “We just had to play at our level.”
San Diego State found out about that level Monday night. The Aztecs seemed touched by karma, with consecutive one-point tournament victories delivered in the last seconds. It had put a sense of destiny in San Diego State. “I feel like we’ve come too far just to lose it,” guard Darrion Trammell had said.
But that wasn’t going to work against Connecticut. The Aztecs had an 11-minute drought with no field goals in the first half to fall behind by as many as 16 points. They closed to within five in the second half, showing the steel that had gotten them this far. “Probably the most physical, one of the toughest teams we played all year,” Hurley called them. But they had finally run into a wall that had no give.
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“We had to be at our best. We weren’t at our best,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “A lot had to do with UConn.”
The Aztecs had gotten this far with no Power 5 pedigree, just like Larry Bird’s Indiana State 44 years ago. “I wish we had Larry Bird,” Dutcher said. “We might have had a chance to win.”
But as matters stood, they probably didn’t. Nobody did the past three weeks. This was not only the end of the rainbow for UConn, but also the final turn in a remarkably winding road. The Huskies began the season unranked, then started 14-0, then went through a 2-6 slump, and finally had the 15-2 sprint to the finish line. They zig-zagged their way to the top of the mountain.
“They buried us before the season and then they buried us at the midpoint,” Hurley said. “We weren’t ranked going into the year so we had a chip on our shoulder. We knew the level we could play at, even through those dark times.”
He had decided that January swoon was an important part of his team’s growth into the monster it became, because of what was learned. “We know that if we get away from our identity for a tick,” he said, “we become very vulnerable.”
Said Newton, “Everybody slept on us. I’m glad they slept. See what it is now.”
The Huskies had come from hither and yon to make this happen. Hawkins from high school in Maryland, Andre Jackson Jr. from New York. Adama Sanogo started out playing soccer in his native Mali. His mind was on his family back home Monday night as they handed him the Most Outstanding Player award. “Every time I do something, I think about them,” he said. “They’re the reason I go hard for this.”
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Those have been the big three, but other pieces were needed. Newton transferred in from East Carolina. There he was with 19 points Monday night. He hadn’t scored that many in a game since January. “On the phone they told me 'let’s go to the Final Four and win a national championship,'” he said of his UConn recruitment. “So that’s what I came here for, to play on stages like this."
Leading the enterprise was Hurley, one of the members of a family basketball dynasty. Brother Bobby — a national champion himself as a Duke player and now coaching Arizona State — was standing on the court afterward, soaking in the moment, too. “I knew how good he was,” he said of his younger brother. “I had a feeling he was going to get here at some point.”
With the trophy presented and the nets cut down, that left the playing of One Shining Moment. Andrew Hurley had said earlier this week how he cherished the memories as a kid, watching that on television every year with his father.
Monday night, they stood together on the court to watch it again. Only this time it was for them.
“It seems like a lifetime,” he said of how long they had dreamed of this. “It’s just been years and years and decades of work for my father.”
But now Dan Hurley and his team had done their part. They have joined the line of champions at Connecticut, which is now far too long for anyone to possibly miss.