NEW YORK — Connecticut Coach Kevin Ollie strode up and down the sideline at Madison Square Garden, gesturing feverishly like a self-help guru trying to convert a crowd. His team was seeded seventh in the NCAA tournament’s East Region, and he was the unproven coach compared with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. Yet when Sunday’s Elite Eight game was over, it was Ollie who scaled the ladder and snatched down the net.
“I was really taking it slow, one step at a time. That’s how you get to the top of a ladder,” he said after a 60-54 upset of the fourth-seeded Spartans propelled the Huskies into the Final Four. “You can’t skip no steps.”
Has any Final Four-bound coach ever started his career in less likely circumstances yet caught fire more quickly? When Jim Calhoun retired in September 2012 after three national championships, Ollie was left with a thin roster — two players from Calhoun’s last team jumped to the NBA, and three transferred — and a one-year postseason ban because of the program’s low Academic Progress Rate. He was given a one-year contract with a lot of strong language about the penalties for any more academic failures.
All he really had was a talent for persuasion. Ollie attacked his problems with the super-intensity that has become his signature and expresses itself in mantras, slogans and acronyms. “No matter what situation we’re in, we’re going to always see the bright light,” he says.
All of which might make him sound like a motivational speaker if his players didn’t buy in so completely.
“In down times, what you do is you bond together as brothers,” he said. “And you hold that fist up. And that FIST for us is ‘Fight.’ It’s our ‘Identity’; that’s the ‘I.’ And the ‘S’ is ‘Stay,’ and then the ‘T’ is ‘Together.’ ”
That was just one of the many jingles and catchphrases he recited after the Huskies had survived several huge momentum swings, come from nine points down, then led by 10 and finally weathered a late surge from the Spartans to become the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since Virginia in 1984.
There was something he called “Level Five,” a hyper-intense state of discipline that had to do with attacking every task the same way and “believing in what’s on your chest and not what’s on your back.”
It would be hard to take him seriously if the Huskies didn’t play so hard and bear out all those airy phrases with a combination of smashmouth toughness and total discipline. And if he wasn’t so clearly a superior floor coach who has melded two smallish, initially incompatible jab-stepping guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, into the best back court in the country.
There was something Ollie called the “One More Club,” which was apparently exemplified by Napier’s willingness to suffer a nosebleed going for a steal and Boatwright’s willingness to slide on his stomach into the photographer’s row for a loose ball.
“We just matched them, and then we upped them one,” Ollie said. “I keep telling our guys, we’re a part of the ‘One More Club.’ We want to do one more thing than our opponent.”
The Huskies didn’t just sink one more free throw than the Spartans — they sank 18 straight without missing in the second half. Napier made nine of them en route to his 25 points. Meanwhile, Boatwright provided the complement with his jamming defense that helped create 16 turnovers, four of them his steals.
“Turning ’em and turning ’em and just making them uncomfortable,” Boatright said.
With a little more than 30 seconds left, the Huskies were up by just two. But then Napier faked a dribble-drive and stepped back for a three-pointer. The Spartans’ Keith Appling went up with him and fouled him to send him to the line.
It was the deciding moment, and everyone knew it. The Garden was a roaring ocean of sound, the crowd jumping up and down until the floor shivered. Napier calmly stroked all three to raise the lead to 56-51 — each one inciting a larger roar. “There were close calls, and then we were out of it,” Izzo said later.
Standing in the bleachers with a swelling chest was Calhoun, who last week had gotten everyone’s attention by hinting he might like to return to coaching. But on this occasion he was purely an overjoyed spectator who grabbed his former player, protégé and sorcerer’s apprentice in a congratulatory hug.
“Our game plan was simple: We wanted to hit first,” Ollie said afterward. “Everybody was kind of picturing them as the giant, and we didn’t want to wait for the giant. We wanted to go meet our giant.”
He may just be a new giant himself.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
Jenkins: Ollie says all the right things