Can’t Say Thank You Enough To The UConn Huskies
On Saturday afternoon, after the final horn sounded on UConn’s 63-59 overtime victory over Providence, I stood at my seat for the last time this season and soaked in what was going on around me and on the floor.
As soon as the fight song came to an end, a video appeared at both ends of Gampel Pavilion, paying tribute to the 2012-13 Huskies, who may not be remembered as the best UConn men’s basketball team of all time, but will certainly be one of the most celebrated.
I watched Niels Giffey’s face grow red as it welled up with tears. DeAndre Daniels bent over, clutching his knees as tears came to his eyes. Behind them, R.J. Evans put his arm around Shabazz Napier and the two cried together.
Off to the side, watching his team finally let the emotions of the 2012-13 season pour out, Kevin Ollie was brought to tears.
Standing in the front row of the student section, my roommate and I couldn’t hide the tears.
No one was sad; these were tears of joy, tears of pride. It was about all anybody could do to celebrate what the UConn men’s basketball accomplished this season.
The NCAA upped its academic regulations last summer, and after originally promising to not apply these new regulations retroactively, Mark Emmert and the NCAA decided that a program needed to be made example of. For that, UConn was punished for poor academic scores – scores obtained by players who were not involved with the program anymore.
UConn was banned from the NCAA Tournament this season, and the Big East decided that that ban should extend to the conference tournament as well. On the surface, it looked like UConn had nothing to play for.
Then, on the day he was introduced as head coach, Ollie declared that his team would “take the stairs, and not the escalator because the escalator, that’s for cowards.” A video shown before every game this season has Ollie saying that his team’s motto was “ten toes in, not five.” What would happen if you walked in the gym and didn’t have ten toes in?
“Then you’ve got a problem with me,” Ollie says in the video.
These weren’t just words from Ollie; his team put them to practice on the floor.
No one expected UConn to come out and play with any heart. After all, the previous year’s team was picked No. 1 in the Big East in the preseason and was a favorite to play for the national title. Elimination from the Big East in the Quarterfinals and a first round exit against Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament were not what UConn had in mind.
That’s why on Nov. 9, when the Huskies went to Germany and defeated No. 14 Michigan State, it was clear that this was going to be a special team.
It wasn’t always pretty. Most UConn fans try to forget the Paradise Jam, during which – when not interrupted by a video of Florida State football practice – they were forced to watch the Huskies hang on by a thread in double overtime against Quinnipiac before losing to New Mexico.
Sometimes, it felt like the world was against them, like when referee Karl Hess accepted responsibility for not crediting UConn with two points for a goaltend when it was noticed that UConn and Marquette were going the wrong way in overtime. The Huskies ultimately lost.
But all of these negative moments aside, the good memories from this season, and the impact of this team will be all that is remembered.
When I look back on this season, I will think about how this team that was supposed to curl up and quit took the game to some of the top programs in the nation. I will think about how Rick Pitino was forced to sweat it out when his No. 1 Louisville side came to the XL Center and nearly lost only hours after obtaining the top ranking.
I will remember the day 50 students hopped into their cars and drove to Providence and helped drive the Huskies to an overtime win over the Friars, even though by the end of the game, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey were the tallest players on the floor for UConn, but they played like the reincarnations of Emeka Okafor and Hasheem Thabeet.
I will remember after that game, while on the way home, I was honked at repeatedly at a red light until I finally rolled down my window, and there was Shabazz Napier, who only wanted to say hi and to thank us for making the trip.
I will remember how no matter what the situation, no matter how tired or hurt they were, every player gave it their all every minute of every game, playing harder than any team that actually has a chance at the national championship this season. Just look at Saturday, when the Huskies were without three key players and their captain’s status was uncertain until tip-off. They still gutted out an overtime win over a very tough team, a team trying to make a case for itself.
I will remember how No. 6 Syracuse came to Hartford with every expectation of running over the Huskies – especially after the arrest of Enosch Wolf days before – in the final showdown between UConn and its most despised rival in Big East play.
I will remember how Ryan Boatright said after the game that Syracuse was leaving the Big East “with a bad taste of UConn in their mouths.”
I said prior to this season that my target record for the Huskies this season was 17-13. This seemed like a reasonable mark, and would have made me extremely happy with the team’s performance in a year where there was “nothing to play for.” This means that UConn could have lost to Michigan State, Syracuse and at Notre Dame, and this would have been a good season nonetheless.
But UConn wasn’t okay with solid. If you’re okay with settling for “good,” if you’re not okay with going the extra mile, take the escalator.
Unless you’re at Madison Square Garden, every escalator has a set of stairs right next to it. UConn took those stairs.
You know how when you’re a kid and you’re going up the stairs, you want to go up them two at a time to prove you’re better than your friends? The Huskies wanted to show they were no pushover. They wanted to show that you can take away their right to play for a trophy, but you can’t take away their right to play for each other or their university.
In all my years, I never thought that a UConn team could match the 1998-99 team as my all-time favorite squad. But in all honesty, this team may be my favorite. Maybe the 1999 national champions shocked the world, but the potential was there to win a national championship with a season coached and a loaded lineup. Despite featuring three national champions (four if one includes Wolf), this was still an inexperienced team with an inexperienced coach. So uncertain was Warde Manuel of how Ollie would perform that he only granted the coach a seven-month contract upon Calhoun’s retirement. By December, Ollie was signed up for five years.
No banners will be raised when the team returns to action at Gampel Pavilion next November, but I don’t need a banner to remember this team. This team has decided by itself how it will be remembered.
A great UConn assistant, the late Jim Valvano, once said, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
UConn never gave up. UConn took two stairs at a time, and earned the right to have that celebration on the floor on Saturday afternoon while the fans who stood by them all season chanted, “Thank you Huskies!”
I don’t think we can say thank you to this team enough.