UConn never stopped believing

April 8, 2014, 3:21 AM

— -- ARLINGTON, Texas -- Believe. That's the word everyone used. The players, the coach, his wife, the mothers. Everyone associated with Connecticut kept coming back to "believe."

It's a powerful tool, the power of conviction, the kind that can change the world and, yes, rebuild a basketball program.

Two years ago, Kevin Ollie told his Connecticut players that they were going to get through APR sanctions, a coaching change and player defections and come out on the other side a stronger, better team.

And they believed him.

Three months ago, after the Huskies lost to Louisville at home, Shabazz Napier gathered his teammates in the locker room and told them a crazy tale. He told them they were going to end the season holding the national championship trophy.

And they believed him.

Two months ago, Ryan Boatright went home to bury his cousin, a young man who was more like a brother than a cousin. Boatright's mother sent her son back to college and told him not to worry, that Arin Williams would be with him.

And he believed her.

Now, finally, maybe everyone will believe in UConn. Counted out of virtually every game since this NCAA tournament began, the Huskies are now the national champions, 60-54 winners over Kentucky.

A year ago, the Huskies weren't allowed to play in the tournament.

And now they own it.

"You can't let anything hold you down," Napier said minutes after the game ended. "You have to find the positive and push through. No matter if you're from a good neighborhood or a bad one, you're going to have obstacles. It's about how you handle them."

The obstacles have come one after another for the Huskies. Individually and collectively, they have absorbed body blow after body blow.

That they are underdog national champions is only fitting considering what they've gone through for years.

"They believed in a vision before anybody could see it," Ollie said. "They stuck with it through down times, when we were losing. When we were winning, they stayed together and they believed it was possible."

They believed even in this title game when it looked a little dire. UConn kept building a lead, and the heart-attack comeback Cats kept coming back. Kentucky had just cut another deficit, this one of nine points, to three when Boatright awkwardly tweaked his ankle.

He quickly called a timeout and his athletic trainer worked on it in the huddle, but he was obviously in pain.

"It's killing me," he said. "But there was no way I was coming out."

Naturally, then, it was Boatright who hit the pull-up jumper with 4:13 left that wound up being the difference-maker for the Huskies.

Because that's what he does and that's what the Huskies do: the unexpected.

No one expected them to beat a bigger, tougher and more talented Kentucky basketball team. No one expected them to beat Michigan State or Florida, either.

But the Huskies did to the Wildcats exactly what they've done to everyone else -- demoralized them with killer defense and dagger shots. Kentucky coughed up 13 turnovers, six caused by Napier and Boatright, and shot just 39.1 percent.

The UConn guards, meanwhile, combined for 36 points and 10 rebounds.

"Me and Shabazz got a lot of heart and we're tough," Boatright said. "When you try to get physical with us, we get physical right back at you. We're not going to back down to nobody."

Napier and Boatright, Boatright and Napier; they are the dynamic duo that made UConn run. To win this title, the Huskies needed more from others --  DeAndre Daniels' emergence offensively, Amida Brimah and  Phillip Nolan's interior defense -- but it is those two, the heart of the Huskies, who are also the team's soul.

They are small and tough, imbued by a crazy sense of self and a lifetime of survival.

Napier won a national championship his freshman year, the understudy to the great Kemba Walker.

But when it was time to assume the starring role, Napier struggled. He wasn't ready to be a leader and, frankly, didn't know how to be one. He shut himself out from his teammates, sniped at them for their behavior and generally endured a miserable sophomore season.

He survived only to come back for his junior year and learn the NCAA would sanction his team for a poor APR performance, there was no more Big East and his coach was retiring.

He could have left. Plenty of his teammates did, transferring to other schools where the dream of a postseason still existed.

Napier didn't.

"There was no need to leave," his mother, Carmen Velasquez, said. "He came to UConn, why would he leave? He loves basketball too much. This is a kid who slept with a basketball since he was 5. He was never leaving."

And now he has a national championship sandwich, one from his first season and one from his last.

"Wow, wow, this is just unbelievable," Velasquez said while she watched her son celebrate on the podium with his teammates. "Freshman year and senior year, we'll take it."

A single mom to three, Velasquez raised her kids to believe they could do anything. There were days she couldn't pay the bills, days she wasn't sure how she was going to get a job, but she never stopped fighting. All three will have college degrees when Napier graduates this spring.

Velasquez is a tough cookie, but all of this -- the title and the celebration -- it all was just too much for her and for her son.

That's why, while his teammates lined up to cut the nets, Napier took a moment with Velasquez. The two hugged and swayed silently, their shoulders heaving as they cried openly. Napier kissed his mother twice on the forehead, before finally prying himself away.

"It's such a feeling, such a feeling," he said, his face still wet with tears. "This is what it's all about. I love my mother to death. She always believed in me, and all I ever wanted to do was make her proud of me."

Tanesha Boatright was proud of her son as she stood holding his hand in the middle of the court -- proud not so much because of what he accomplished, because she believed he'd do that.

Proud because of what he'd been through.

Genetics said Boatright and Arin Williams were cousins; reality turned them into brothers. Williams' mother died in childbirth, and Tanesha Boatright took him in, raising the two boys side by side. Williams was just 20 when two men shot him in a restaurant bathroom, intent on robbing him.

On Monday morning, Boatright did two things before his national championship game: He tweeted a picture of himself, flexing, superimposing an image of Williams and his uncle who also died recently on each of his shoulders like angel wings. "WE GOT YOU!! Victory is yours," he put on top of the picture.

Then he sent his mom a text message.

"'Be easy, smile and relax. I'm going to get you your ring,' that's what he text me," Tanesha said. "I always told him I wanted some jewelry."

"She's getting a ring, a national championship ring," Boatright said.

A year ago, the athletic department gave the Huskies a plaque. They hadn't won anything because, of course, they couldn't win anything.

"It was because of who they are. They're a special group," athletic director Warde Manuel said, "They stayed here and they stayed together."

And above all else, they believed.

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