NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie ducked through the tunnel like a prizefighter who'd just scored the knockout, a gantlet of Huskies fans reaching down to slap his back and his shoulder.
When he got to the other side, Jim Calhoun was there for a big hug, one of a series of them. By all appearances, Ollie's 26th victory as UConn's head coach was the sweetest to date — the opponent, the setting, the circumstances all combining to make it so.
"They don't have to prove anything to me anymore," Ollie said of his team. "They're a great team, not just from a win-loss perspective, but togetherness."
Shabazz Napier took his struggling teammates on his back down the stretch, scoring 27 points, and UConn held together, out-defended Indiana in a defensive game, and won, 59-58, to capture the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden. It was a battle of brand names, college basketball heavyweights befitting the newly refurbished area, which has housed so many classics in which UConn has been involved.
"Indiana's a great team, and they played their hearts out," said Napier, the Classic's MVP. "We knew if we didn't rebound and play with heart, we weren't going to get this one. Any win's a great win, but to beat a great program like Indiana, that has great players, it feels even better."
The Huskies (6-0), ranked 18th and likely trending upward in the next AP poll, came into the season with big expectations and have not disappointed yet, with wins over Maryland and Boston College of the ACC and now Indiana, one of the pillars of the Big Ten.
They won this one the way they won the other close ones — by playing smothering defense over the final minute. Indiana (5-1) had four chances to take the lead after Napier's layup with 1:34 to play, but the Huskies forced two turnovers, Tyler Olander and Lasan Kromah making steals.
After Napier was called for a charge with 22.4 seconds left, UConn's defense forced Yogi Ferrell, who scored 19, to settle for a tough fallaway shot that missed. With 0.7 seconds left, the Hoosiers could not get a final shot off in time.
The Huskies were out-rebounded by two, and shot below par at 39.6 percent, but they got 12 steals and induced 19 Indiana turnovers.
"Every day in practice, we have to get three stops for a kill," Ollie said. "That's what we did — we got three stops. Going back 27 years to when Coach Calhoun got here, we hang our hat on defense and that's never going to change. Never."
Napier hit 10 of 14 shots, including four of his 6 three-point attempts. The rest of the Huskies were 11-for-39 from the floor, and 2-for-13 on threes. The score was tied eight times, and the lead changed 13 times, most of that in the second half. The Hoosiers led by five, 51-46, after Evan Gordon's lay-in with 5:15 to go, but the Huskies surged back to take the lead, 55-53, on DeAndre Daniels' three-pointer.
Napier put the Huskies back on top twice more, with 2:29 left and with what proved to be the final points of the game with 1:34 left.
"Shabazz has been doing that since his freshman year," said Olander, who made important contributions during his 24 minutes. "He hit that shot to beat Villanova as a sophomore, he was incredible in overtime last year. Sometimes he just carries us on his back."
Ryan Boatright had nine points and three steals. Daniels had seven points and six rebounds.
Indiana came in with a plus-20 rebounding advantage over its first five opponents, including domination in that area against Washington, 50-29, on Thursday night.
But UConn caught a break when freshman Noah Vonleh drew two fouls within the first two minutes of the game. He ended up playing only 10 minutes.
"Everybody's talking about other freshmen, but [Vonleh] is right there with him," Ollie said. "Getting him in four trouble was huge."
Napier hit threes on each of UConn's last two possessions of the half to open up a 30-24 lead, his shot at the buzzer sending the Huskies off the floor with a lot of momentum.
"Every big shot, he made," Ollie said.
As the second half began, Napier was the Huskies' only effective shooter. Indiana made a 7-0 run to briefly take a 34-33 lead, but Napier responded quickly with a jumper, and the back-and-forth began.
Ryan Boatright got to the line and hit two, then made a steal and dished to Kromah for a layup to ignite a mini-run by UConn, good for a 43-38 lead with 9 minutes left. By then, Vonleh had picked up his fourth foul and Amidah Brimah his fourth and Daniels his third for UConn.
Ferrell hit a three to tie it at 45 with 6:44. The Hoosiers went on a 13-3 run to take a five-point lead, but UConn responded, with Napier and Daniels hitting threes, and surged back into the lead. It was tied at 55 with 3:07 to play, setting the stage for a dramatic finish.
"The last key we wrote on the board was, 'it's not going to be about skill, it's going to be about heart,'" said Ollie, who throughout the game was more even animated than usual. "We're not the biggest team, but I will put our heart against anybody."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun