Two weeks later, after they defeated Florida, another one-point, down-to-the-buzzer win, Ollie repeated it.
Perhaps it was too soon for such an ultimate compliment. But as a new year begins, and the Huskies are staggering rather than swaggering into a new conference, it's not too late for Ollie to take that back. The Huskies have split their past four games, and they have not been impressive in doing so. They lost to Houston 75-71 in the first American Athletic Conference game on Tuesday night, after which Ollie found himself saying, "I'll try to find some tough guys."
The Huskies, unbeaten and in the Top 10 in December, winning with heart, grit, toughness, poise; these were signatures. There was little of that to be found in the first half in Houston, when a team picked seventh in the AAC ran up a 21-point lead.
Ollie started searching, challenging again — looking for someone to show him something.
"I told them [at halftime] you have to play with heart," Ollie said. "Our best player [Shabazz Napier] has to set the tone, he has to come out and play, he can't have two points. DeAndre Daniels has to come and play. Our starters have to play, that's why I changed the starting lineup. We have to figure out something. That's my job as a head coach, to figure it out."
Ollie, who slammed and shattered a clipboard to shake the Huskies out of their deer-in-the-headlights funk, appeared most fed up with Phil Nolan and Omar Calhoun, who had been taking out of the starting lineup. Calhoun played five minutes, Nolan four and Amida Brimah, who started the game, played only four minutes as his raw footwork was exposed by the speedy Cougars. Ollie had been using nine or 10 players in significant roles, but this time used only six for more than five minutes.
But no one could really handle Houston's TaShawn Thomas. UConn ended up staying with senior Tyler Olander in the middle, and he got two points, four rebounds and five fouls in 16 minutes.
That the Huskies mounted a furious comeback and took the lead, 67-64, in the final minutes impressed the coach not at all, nor was he laying the blame on a lame-looking foul call on Olander that sent Thomas to the line for what he called "the biggest free throws of my life," the winning points with 9.2 seconds left. The hungrier team won.
"You can't wait for someone to punch you," Ollie said. "You've got to play perfect basketball when you get down 21. Perfect. They have to miss all their shots, you have to make all your shots. You've got to have 'Bazz score 25 [in the second half]. That's not what I envision for this team. It's not. We've got to figure something out, do some soul-searching."
The Huskies made the short flight to Dallas on Wednesday, where they will prepare for Southern Methodist and what was supposed to be the much tougher game of this Texas two-stop. The Mustangs (10-2, going into their game Wednesday against Cincinnati) are coming of age under one of Ollie's coaching mentors, Larry Brown, 73, and will be opening their new building. The game is sold out.
"Everyone knows that when conference season starts, the intensity level rises," said Houston coach James Dickey, whose team was picked seventh in the league's preseason coaches' poll. "If you can't get excited … when you're playing the University of Connecticut — this is what you come to college for."
If there was any thought that UConn, which will tumble from its current No. 17 ranking, would breeze through this conference, this trip should disabuse fans, and the Huskies themselves, of that notion. The AAC is filled with programs, like Houston and SMU, looking to move up in the college basketball world, and the Huskies can't be both outmuscled and outhustled and get by. Meantime, the coach's call for toughness left even his best players looking in the mirror.
"I'm not going to call anybody out," said Ryan Boatright, who scored 19 points. "If Coach said that, he's looking for toughness from all of us, including me and Shabazz."
Napier, who did not score until hitting two free throws at the end of the half, ended up with 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
[Ollie] is upset, and I don't blame him," Napier said. "It starts with me. If I don't show my toughness … Everybody on my team is tough, I'd take these guys any day. It starts with me and I didn't start the game off the right way."
"My first half performance — it starts with me," Napier said. "If I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do, it goes down the drain real fast. I didn't do what I was supposed to do. I let it slip out of my hand. We weren't able to rebound and get the stops we needed at the end. We just played bad, and it had everything to do with me. My team needed me in the first half and the way I played, I would expect us to lose."