ARLINGTON, Texas -- There is no more indelible image of this surreal Connecticut run to the national title game than that of Huskies coach Kevin Ollie crouched in a defensive stance along the sideline. Knees bent, arms extended and tailored suit pants close to the floor, Ollie looks poised to pounce into a double team at any moment.
Full of youthful vibrancy, veteran confidence and relentless energy, Ollie has led the Huskies on a historic run that has made them the first No. 7 seed to reach the national title game and just one win away from the school's fourth championship.
UConn smothered Florida, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, on Saturday in the national semifinal, breaking brackets, stunning oddsmakers and ending the Gators' 30-game winning streak. The tenor of Connecticut's 63-53 victory left the strongest impression, as the Huskies overwhelmed a team reputed to be deeper, stronger and more talented. Florida finished with just one three-pointer and three total assists, and star Scottie Wilbekin was harassed into a 2-for-9 shooting performance by UConn guard Ryan Boatright that appropriately ended with an airball. And as Connecticut unleashed its defense like a collective ball of furor, there was Ollie crouched low, clapping his hands and pleading for more.
"Sometimes we have to match his energy," said UConn forward Phillip Nolan, who added with a laugh, "I feel like we have six people on the court playing defense."
It sure looked that way to the stunned Gators bench, which kept searching for answers that they couldn't find. The Huskies' mix of defenses made Florida's pick-and-roll heavy offense look like it was operating underwater. UConn suffocated the Gators' stars, allowing their role players to take bad shots, and never once relinquished the lead in the second half.
But should we really be surprised anymore? In three sun-kissed weeks, Ollie has dispatched a roll call of some of the game's biggest coaching names -- St. Jospeh's Phil Martelli, Villanova's Jay Wright, Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Florida's Billy Donovan. The latter two names on that list are surefire Hall of Famers, but with this tournament run Ollie, 41, has vaulted his way toward becoming one of the game's most respected coaches in just his second season.
Ollie, a 13-year NBA journeyman, has his entire team playing as if it is on a 10-day contract. This is a club that got swept by SMU, lost to woeful Houston and got thumped three times by Louisville. Now it is playing for a shot at the school's second national title in four years. If the Huskies beat Kentucky on Monday night, they'll be the second lowest seed to win the title, behind only No. 8 Villanova in 1985.
"The biggest difference in UConn's team in my opinion from seeing them in December and then watching them on tape is they have turned into a great defensive team," said Donovan, whose team also lost to the Huskies by a point back on Dec. 2 in Storrs, Conn.
Ollie refers to the defensive key in UConn's game plan as the "Ace of Spades." He made it clear to his team on Saturday night that slowing down Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year, was of paramount importance.
The Connecticut players revealed that forcing Wilbekin to his left was a huge point of emphasis, as well as pushing him to the baseline on pick-and-rolls, a place that Huskies assistant Glen Miller refers to as the "coffin corner." It was a fitting place for Wilbekin on this night, as the SEC player of the year showed little life. He finished with four points, needed his legs iced for cramps early in the second half and struggled to penetrate into the lane. Boatright provided the primary defense, as Miller estimated he spent 70-percent of the time on Wilbekin. But Napier provided the dagger play, which came with 2:50 remaining and the Gators trailing by eight, when he poked the ball away from Wilbekin from behind to force a turnover. DeAndre Daniels, who led UConn with 20 points, converted a jumper on the next possession. Connecticut held a 10-point lead and could safely extend its hotel reservations through Monday night.
Boatright said Ollie delivered a simple defensive message: "If we could disturb and get Scottie Wilbekin as uncomfortable as we can, we would have a nice chance to win the game." Ollie simplified the defensive gameplan on Wilbekin to this: "We wanted to take him out.
On the Gators' first possession, they ran perhaps their best offensive set of the night. Florida executed a staggered double screen for shooting guard Michael Frazier, who received a snap pass from Wilbekin in the deep left corner and swished a 3-pointer. The play unfolded with the synchronization of a veteran team, and went directly against the UConn scouting report. "He was the one guy we couldn't lose," Miller said.
From that point on, they didn't. Napier served as the primary defender on Frazier and locked him down him the rest of the night. That opening three-pointer proved to be Frazier's only basket of the night, and the only triple the Gators would make in the entire game.
Ollie stressed afterward that the Huskies wanted to keep Wilbekin out of the lane and eliminate Frazier's clean looks. UConn also wanted Florida to keep moving the ball so less talented players like Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith took shots. And that's exactly how things unfolded. There was Yeguete, a 20-percent 3-point shooter, launching a 3-pointer early in the shot clock. There was Finney-Smith, showing no feel for his offensive limitations, missing all three shots he catapulted toward the hoop from beyond the arc on a night he finished 1-for-6. And most impressively, there was Frazier managing just three attempts in 32 minutes and not scoring for the game's final 39. Ollie couldn't have choreographed a better game plan, as he eliminated Florida's strengths, exploited its weaknesses and never allowed the Gators to find a rhythm .
"We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable," Ollie said. "We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass."
Ollie's coaching masterpiece extended to the offensive end. One of Florida's key defensive wrinkles in this NCAA tournament was dropping into a 1-3-1 zone defense to flummox an opponent. In Memphis last week, Florida ran it twice against UCLA and twice against Dayton. It resulted in four empty trips, the kind of switch that can be the difference in a Final Four game. With 10:29 left, Wilbekin forced a Napier turnover at the top of the 1-3-1 and Florida cut the lead to 39-35 on a Patric Young hook. But on the next possession, Napier lobbed an alley-oop to DeAndre Daniels to beat the zone. The next time Florida flashed the 1-3-1 about four minutes later, Boatright hit Daniels with another lob to bump the lead to 49-41. Said Miller, "That broke their spirit a little bit."
The Huskies never lost theirs, despite trailing by 12 points early and scoring only four points in the game's first 10 minutes. Perhaps most importantly, when they built a comfortable lead they never stopped attacking on offense or lost their edge on defense.
In the mold of its fiery head coach, UConn kept on punching and delivered a defensive performance for the ages to set up a title game showdown with John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats. One more potential Hall of Fame head coach and one more Vegas favorite awaits on Monday night.
There's no doubt that the breakout coaching star of this NCAA tournament will be in his stance to help stop them.