ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) – They could have left, gone someplace new to get a fresh start. No one would have blamed them.
The iconic coach who recruited them was gone. Playing in the NCAA tournament, the carrot for every player, was not an option, at least for another year. Some of their teammates had already left, to the NBA and other schools.
For the five who stayed, leaving was never an option — and the best thing that could have happened to UConn’s basketball program.
“I’m glad these guys believed in the program, believed in me, but most importantly believed in each other to stay, to fight through the tough times,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Friday from AT&T Stadium in North Texas. “Now they’re reaping the benefits.”
UConn (30-8) is back in the Final Four, three years after winning the program’s third national championship.
It’s been, at times, a dark ride.
Coach Jim Calhoun, a fixture in Storrs since 1986, retired just before the 2012-13 season. UConn was ineligible for the NCAA tournament at the end of that season for failing to meet NCAA academic standards. The Big East also was falling apart, leaving the Huskies scrambling to find a home.
The confluence of events led Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley to transfer. It helped hastened a move to the NBA by Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond.
The roster shrinking, the prospect of playing in the postseason gone, more players could have left, all but decimating the program.
Instead, Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander banded together, decided they weren’t going to abandon what they started.
“Since that day on, everybody just worked hard, everybody pushed each other on the team and we never gave up,” Daniels said. “Even though we couldn’t make the tournament, we told everybody, no matter what, we’re just going to play hard for the university, and ourselves and our families, and that’s what everybody did.”
That’s about all they had last season.
The Huskies went into it with no chance of playing in the NCAA tournament and not knowing where they’d end up in the conference realignment musical chairs. They had practice limitations and lost a scholarship. They were playing for a coach who had never been in charge of a program and were missing four key players.
Instead of withering, they pressed on, banding together with an us-against-the-world attitude UConn finished 20-10 last season, beating ranked teams Michigan State, Notre Dame and Syracuse along the way.
“There were a lot of things that kind of held us back and it was tough to get back on track,” Giffey said. “But I think we kind of built a base last year that brought us so far this year because we found a different way to motivate ourselves, a different bond, a different reason to play well that’s not about championships, it’s not about ourselves, but really about the team’s success.”
That foundation was the springboard to this season.
Despite tempered expectations, UConn climbed the polls after opening with nine straight wins, including a 65-64 over Florida, the Huskies’ national semifinal opponent on Saturday night.
There were some bumps along the way after that, a big one the 81-48 drubbing by Louisville in the regular-season finale. UConn lost to the Cardinals again in the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed in the East Regional.
After scraping past Saint Joseph’s in their opener, the Huskies have strung together an impressive list of wins — Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State — to reach the Final Four for the third time in six seasons.
“I’m happy with those kids,” Calhoun said. “I’m proud of what they’ve done. And I’m proud of the reward they got by being here, too.”
They’re here because of the players who stuck it out.
Napier, a freshman on the last title team, became one of the best closers in college basketball, a do-it-all point guard who has, at times, carried the Huskies like Kemba Walker in 2011.
Daniels is UConn’s second-leading scorer at 13 points per game and had 27 in the win over Iowa State. Boatright has taken some of the scoring pressure off Napier and is an offense disruptor with his defense on the perimeter.
Giffey has transformed himself from little-used freshman on the 2011 title team to UConn’s best shooter, hitting 49 percent from the 3-point arc. And though his minutes have been reduced this season, Olander is still an important contributor in practice and spot situations, providing the Huskies with a veteran presence after playing on the last championship team.
“The people that we did have, we just brought them together and became a brotherhood,” Boatright said. “We tried to make the best out of the situation and it’s working out for us.”
All that’s left now is to finish it off with another national championship.
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