ORLANDO, Fla. — Kevin Ollie, Daniel Hamilton, Jalen Adams and the rest of the UConn Huskies better get a new pair of shoes in Orlando, because they are going dancing.
With a 72-58 victory over Memphis in the finals of the American Athletic Conference Championship, UConn earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“It feels great (to be back in the NCAA tournament),” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “I haven’t won a conference championship yet in my years as a head coach. To win the first one with this group, it really makes it all worthwhile… I’m so happy for these guys, these players, because they’ve been scrutinized a lot. And for them to come together like they did and play so hard for these three games and go into four overtimes, it just really shows our toughness, our resiliency and what UConn is made about. They are really breathing that right now.”
UConn was selected as a No. 9 seed in the South region and will face Colorado on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. Kansas is the No. 1 seed in the South.
The Huskies return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. In their last appearance in 2014, UConn shocked the world, winning the national championship as a No. 7 seed.
Last season’s team will be remembered as a disappointment. They finished 20-15 and lost in the first round of the NIT.
“We were just talking about how we talked about this in the summer time. (Hamilton) and I were roommates in the summer time and that pain we felt was terrible. Watching other teams play in the tournament. It hurt us, but it helped us. We took that drive, that frustration out in the summer time. We really worked really, really hard…it showed on the basketball court,” Rodney Purvis said.
Only Omar Calhoun, Amida Brimah, Phil Nolan, Kentan Facey and Nnamdi Amilo return from that team. Rodney Purvis was on the team, but did not play due to transfer rules.
UConn’s return to the NCAA tournament comes as a result of a surprising American Athletic Conference tournament run.
“We just continued to build on that momentum from Cincinnati to Temple to Memphis, those great teams in our conference, and we’re just continuing that momentum and it all paid off in the end,” Hamilton, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the American Men’s Basketball Championship, said.
They entered the weekend as a No. 5 seed. They needed a four overtimes and a miracle 62-foot heave from Jalen Adams to survive Cincinnati in their opening game.
Next was the regular season champion Temple Owls, who were rather easily dispatched.
Sunday’s championship tilt with Memphis was anticlimactic.
The party was about to start, the Huskies just needed to get their invitation.
Although five members of this team, plus the coaching staff, have championship rings, this is a relatively inexperienced team in postseason play.
About half the roster, including Daniel Hamilton, Shonn Miller, Sterling Gibbs and Jalen Adams, has not played in an NCAA tournament game.
Gibbs and Miller, both graduate transfers, came to UConn for this exact reason.
“We’re playing for each other, we’re playing for our brothers and we’re playing to get to the NCAA tournament and to go far in the NCAA tournament,” Gibbs said.
This UConn team has been a pillar of inconsistency all year. They had trouble closing out games, had extended periods of stagnant offense and lacked energy at times. But over this tournament weekend, they looked very much like the team many expected to see all season.
“I think we’re just playing our best basketball right now. We’re clicking. We’re playing great defense. Guys are stepping up and making good shots. That team, 2014, they really started to understand their roles at the end,” Ollie said.
Looking ahead to the NCAA tournament, the Huskies will take on a Colorado (22-11, 10-8) team that finished fifth in the Pac-12. It will be the first matchup between the two programs.
“We’re going to get prepared. (My coaching staff and I are) going to break down the tape,” Ollie said. “We’re probably going to pull a coach in (the situation room) and probably pull a couple all-nighters and get ready for Colorado and hopefully we can get through that one.”