ARLINGTON, Texas — Because there is no point in doubting the Huskies now, let's state this with absolute certainty.
Shabazz Napier's postgame speech will become an iconic moment in the history of the program, just as his career and this championship will be historic in its importance. It started when Jim Nantz asked, innocuously, what he was feeling after UConn beat Kentucky 60-54 to win the national championship.
"Uh, honestly, I want to get everybody's attention right quick," Napier said Monday. "Let me get your attention, if I don't have your attention, let me get your attention."
What in the world was coming next? Napier, always irrepressible, was now unleashed. He has always had the state's attention; now he had the world's.
"You're looking at the Hungry Huskies," Napier said, pointing to UConn fans. "This is what happens when you ban us. Last year ... two years … we worked so hard for it, two years we've been hungry."
It wasn't a call for revolution, but a call for justice. It was time to lift the real and perceived weights placed unfairly on this group of UConn men's basketball players, the punishment and stigma of the poor academic performance of players who came through the program five to 10 years ago.
"We're hungry," Napier said a few minutes later. "When you stop us, when you prevent us from trying to go to the postseason — and it wasn't our fault? We worked since that day on. Coach [Kevin] Ollie told us, this is going to be a two-year plan, and since that day on we believed. Like I said, man, I just wanted to grab everybody's attention and introduce the Hungry Huskies, because it's been two years. It's quite funny because I was laying down [the night before] and I was thinking of something to say, because I knew we were going to win."
Two years ago, Napier called out teammates for lacking heart. He regretted that move and learned the right leadership voice from the fallout. Now, with UConn's unexpected return to the sport's biggest stage, Napier called out the college basketball establishment, urging better treatment of players from poor backgrounds last week and assailing the NCAA for its slapping of a postseason ban on UConn in 2013 because of low APR scores predating the current players. Even as the Huskies were gearing up to play Kentucky, the 7-month-old story of UConn's 8 percent graduation rate, using a formula that included 12 players who were in the program as far back as a decade, was revived on the Internet.
The fact is, this UConn team not only excelled on the court, beyond even the rosiest of expectations, but did just fine in the classroom. Seniors Napier, Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey will all graduate on time, and Lasan Kromah will pick up a master's degree this summer.
"We didn't come out here to get any revenge or anything like that," Napier said. "We came out here to play. When you have the greatest fans to back you up, you're going to play for them."
The championship was won, and the point was delivered — so emphatically that it knocked Derek Jeter's last home opener off the pages of the New York tabloids, which went instead with "Back With A Vengeance" and the often-used "Wrath of Conn." And Napier's face, straining as he screams in triumph and defiance, will occupy the next Sports Illustrated cover.
This is what happened: The Huskies are back on top, where no one expected them and where they seem convinced that few outside Connecticut ever wanted to see them again.
Certainly the teams that UConn played in this tournament — St. Joseph's, Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida and, finally, Kentucky — will be happy to never see Napier and the rest of the team. The relentless defense that UConn played made opponents uncomfortable. And fueled by Ollie's brilliant game plans, the Huskies made all the important shots. It started long ago, when no one was watching.
"We can give all the credit to Coach Ollie and our trainer, Travis [Ilian]," said Ryan Boatright, who hit 5 of 6 shots in the championship game. "The preseason was extremely tough. We really hated it, like the running was crazy and K.O. pushed us to do it. Coach Ollie didn't let us out of it. I remember him saying when I did not want to do those sprints, he was like, 'If you do it, at the end of the year when everybody else is tired, you're all going to be good and y'all are going to run them out of the gym.' And it happened. We were getting up and down the floor and they were gassed and they were bent over and we were still standing straight up and ready to go."
Boatright, 6 feet, and Napier, 6-1, who had 22 points and six rebounds, never backed down, and their teammates, from freshman to senior, followed that lead.
"I remember telling these guys after we lost against Louisville at home [Jan. 18], 'Everybody pick your head up.'" Napier said. "We're going to be the team that's going to be holding up that trophy. I promise you that.' And it's so surreal that it actually happened. I told them, we were on the podium and I told everybody, 'Look at me. What did I tell y'all when we lost against Louisville at home?'"
Said Giffey: "After that Louisville loss, he went back into the locker room and said, 'We are going to cut down some nets, I promise you guys.' I looked into his eyes and we believed him. We knew what it would take."
Now that it's over, the group will break up and face a new set of issues, the ones that come with being a defending champion, will set in. The seniors are leaving. Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, who joined Napier on the All-Final Four team, will weigh their options regarding the NBA draft. And Ollie, although it seems unfathomable that he would leave, is likely to be tempted by the NBA, where he played 13 seasons and engendered tremendous respect. Athletic director Warde Manuel has promised that they will have a "great conversation" about a new contract.
But all that can wait. Shabazz Napier, AAC player of the year, Bob Cousy Award winner, most outstanding player of the East Regional and the Final Four, got everyone's attention, and gave us a lot to think about, and a moment to remember forever.
"[I'll remember him] as a leader, the sacrifice, the toughness," Ollie said. "He's just a remarkable young man from Roxbury, from a single-parent home, and his struggle. And I keep telling Shabazz, I told all of them, with struggle is progress. You can't have progress if you don't struggle."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun