Men's Basketball: UConn faces Kentucky in search of fourth national championship
UConn forward Niels Giffey hangs on the rim after dunking near the end of the Huskies 63-53 win over Florida Saturday at AT&T Stadium. JON KULAKOFSKY/The Daily Campus
ARLINGTON, Texas - Terrence Samuel knows he is not dreaming, but he also has no idea how he will react if UConn beats Kentucky in the National Championship Game Monday night at AT&T Stadium.
"I don't how I'm going to feel," Samuel said. "I might cry. It's that big to me, especially to be a freshman and accomplish that goal."
This trip to the final comes after yet another game in which UConn was the underdog, UConn was in trouble and UConn found a way to win. This time, it was after being down 12 to Florida, the No. 1 team in the nation, a team that had won 30 straight games since the Huskies beat them on Dec. 2.
"(Coach Kevin Ollie) just told us keep believing, no matter how much you get down during the game," Samuel said. "That's what we do, you know. We're a resilient team. We just bounce back, and we find a way to cut out that win."
It also comes at a time when no one expected UConn to be at this point, except for the Huskies themselves.
Ollie guided UConn through last season's postseason ban, and even once they got back to work for the 2013-14 season, there were few people talking about the Huskies.
To call this season a roller coaster would be an egregious understatement. This UConn team that will play for the national championship Monday night beat Florida before losing to Stanford, Houston and SMU. Louisville dominated them three times - the Cardinals won by 33 points four weeks ago - yet UConn beat Memphis (who beat Louisville twice) three times.
In the tournament, the Huskies somehow outlasted St. Joseph's in overtime. They came back against Villanova while Shabazz Napier spent 12 minutes on the bench in first-half foul trouble. They benefited from a lack of Georges Niang in the Iowa State frontcourt. They held Michigan State's Adreian Payne to a couple 3-pointers. Then they made the guards of the nation's best team entirely irrelevant and beat Florida, again.
"Nobody had us going this far," Samuel said, "and we have beaten two of the best teams in the nation during this course of our run. Why stop? Why not keep going and get this championship? We know we have a good team."
So here they stand, and for the seniors who have won the title once before, back as freshmen in 2011, winning this one, through all the hardship and all the doubt, would be even more satisfying.
"It's just been so much fun," Olander said. "This has been a two-year process. It started our junior year. It started with a great group of guys and with a new coach in Coach Ollie that's just been an outstanding figure, and I couldn't have asked for a better replacement to a Hall of Fame coach."
If there is another team that knows a thing or two about overcoming skeptics and pulling out big wins, it is Kentucky. After missing the NCAA tournament last season, the Wildcats entered the season with high expectations, 40-0 expectations in fact.
Kentucky brought in what many considered the best freshman class of all time, and it earned the No. 1 ranking in the preseason poll as a result. There was even a website made, 40and0.com, to promote what could have been a perfect season.
That dream ended three games into the season with a loss to Michigan State, and the Wildcats lost nine more games after that, often raising questions about the ability of a team of freshmen to compete at the highest level.
But here Kentucky is, with its size and talent, ready to take a crack at winning its ninth national title.
The Wildcats' starters all have a five-inch advantage on Napier and six inches on Ryan Boatright, but the Huskies have faced height matchups at guard all year.
"I'm not too concerned about the guards," center Phil Nolan said, "because our guards, that's what they live for. That's what they came to UConn for: to play against other great guards. So I just feel good. I just feel like they're going to do their job and stay up in the guards.
"And us, as the bigs, we've just go to front the post, keep the bigs off the guys and just do our job."
Nolan and freshman center Amida Brimah both got into foul trouble against the strong bigs of Florida Saturday night, something that will need to be avoided against Julius Randle, who averages 15.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game and is a potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
"He's strong, and he has a strong left," Brimah said, "so I have to make sure he doesn't get too comfortable with going left."
After the win over Florida, UConn students stormed the floor at Gampel Pavilion, where several thousand watched the game on big screens, and then took to Fairfield Way to celebrate.
The Huskies, some of whom had nearly 200 text messages waiting for them after the game, saw pictures and watched video of the celebrations in Storrs, and as a result, there is even more motivation to bring a fourth national title back to Connecticut.
"That's what makes it so special is we get to come home to that," Olander said. "We get to come home to the best fans, to the best arena to play at in college, I think, and it's so special."
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