The clock wound down to zero and the Huskies had secured a 69-63 win over Rutgers on Wednesday.
It was the final game of the season at home for the Huskies (24-6, 12-5 AAC), who head to Louisville this Saturday.
The game had a much different feel than last year's finale. A year ago, the postseason banned Huskies season ended at Gampel in the final game. At the time, coach Kevin Ollie got on the microphone to thank the fans. It was over, and the offseason began despite a 20-10 record.
Ollie got on the mic again on Wednesday, but this time he had a different message for the crowd.
"We'll be back in April," Ollie told the crowd.
Shabazz Napier shoots a jumper against Rutgers on Wednesday. Photo Credit: Steve Slade/UConn Communications.
Everyone in the building knew what Ollie meant. At UConn, with three national championships in the past 15 years, April at Gampel Pavilion means a celebration. Ollie thinks the No. 19 ranked Huskies can win the national championship. He isn't going to shy away from it.
Ollie doesn't play coach speak and ramp down expectation. He build up expectations.
UConn isn't going to be a favorite when the brackets come out, but Ollie thinks the Huskies are the goods. He didn't shy away from it after that game either. That wasn't some false optimism he showed to the Gampel crowd. Ollie thinks they can win it.
"I got confidence in my guys. I believe," Ollie said. "We got a chance, like 68 other teams, why not think it?"
"I believe we are going to win the national championship... I got faith in my team."
UConn figures to anywhere from a high of a 4 seed to a low of a 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. In that sense, speaking of the national championship is audacious.
If it wasn't UConn, which won a national title with Kemba Walker just three years ago, and Napier most national pundits would scoff at it.
But, with Napier looking more like Walker everyday, is it that big a stretch?
Is there a team more to fear in the NCAA field if you are a 1 or 2 seed?
Sure, Ollie put the pressure on, but that's nothing knew for Napier. He's dealt with pressure since he got here, evidenced by the 15 minutes of non-stop questions after senior night from about two dozen media. What other player and team has that?
Napier took it like a pro.
"I think that's how he feels," Napier said of Ollie. " You don't shy away from it, everybody wants to get to that last game...I am going to back him up, he's our coach, I am going to do what he says. "
The most dangerous players in the NCAA tournament are the ones who have a sense of desperation and destiny. The NCAA tournament doesn't always crown the best team, but rather the most resilient team. Walker was on a mission two years ago and lifted UConn on a legendary run through the Big East tournament and the NCAAs. Napier was a big part of that run, but it's not the success that is driving him -- it's the failure.
The last NCAA tournament game that UConn played wasn't the glorious win over Butler, but rather a humbling loss to Iowa State in the first round. That team, with Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, which could eventually have five or six NBA draft picks from it, never clicked. Instead of Drummond and Lamb leading UConn to back-to-back titles, the indelible image of that season -- Jim Calhoun's last -- is Lamb's ill-advised and ill-executed missed windmill dunk to end the NCAA game while the Huskies were getting blown out.
Napier was the point guard on that team, and at times racked up huge assist numbers with that talent. He also has taken the blame for that disaster of a team. Someone has to be the fall guy, and Napier got the rep of being a bad leader.
"It was a big team, we didn't have the chemistry right. A lot had to do with me and other people," Napier said. "I am going to take the fall for it because I don't blame nothing on nobody else."
Napier's changed that perception the last two years. He's still an opinionated player who grates on teammates -- witness the jawing with Ryan Boatright in the huddle on Wednesday -- but there is little doubt who the leader of the Huskies is. Napier takes the big shots, gets the team organized, and lives for the big moments. The better the team, the more at stake, the better Napier and the Huskies seem to play.
UConn has flaws, but also a lot of answers. The Huskies can defend, hit the 3, block some shots and when they are rebounding can get out on the break for easy baskets.
That's a start of a team that can make a deep run. The other thing you need is a special player who can takeover a game as needed when the pressure is on. Those are the rare players in the NCAA tournament.
UConn has one in Napier.
Just because of that, the rest of the nation is going to take Ollie's statement seriously.