“Two Final Fours, Champions in Maui, Winning the Big East Tournament and a National Championship: Few people witness in a lifetime what we were fortunate enough to experience in two years. Thank you UCONN Basketball for four of the most memorable years of my life.”
This was my salute to UCONN basketball after working my last game senior year of college. It all went by in a blur yet I can still remember specific plays like they happened yesterday: Jeff Adrien’s dunk over two taller Michigan State defenders in the 2008 Final Four, Jeremy Lamb’s high flying dunk vs Columbia and of course Kemba Walker’s step back sinking Gary McGhee and Pitt. Although we still have the postseason tournaments to go, tonight brings the ceremonious culmination for the remaining 2010 recruiting class of Niels Giffey, Shabazz Napier and Tyler Olander. For such an unheralded recruiting class they have certainly given fans some of the most memorable moments in UCONN history. Shabazz, up for every major award this season, deserves all the accolades he receives however it is important not to overlook the contributions of Tyler and Niels, especially during the 2011 National Championship season.
Few remember the 14 points Giffey put up in the Maui Championship game against Kentucky to complement Kemba’s offensive attack, some probably had never heard of him until that game. Even less will remember Olander’s contribution in the 2011 Big East semifinals vs Syracuse. With Okwandu and Oriakhi in foul trouble, Olander came off the bench to provide 7 points/6 rebounds against imposing Cuse’ big man Rick Jackson. Tyler’s breakthrough performance came when UCONN needed it most and dramatically changed the course of the game for the Huskies. Add in Shabazz’ clutch free throws in the waning seconds against Kentucky in the Final Four and you have three clutch performances that embody what it means to play basketball at UCONN. Grit, perseverance, toughness and commitment. Amidst all the transfers, the uncertainties, the negative attention, the loss of a postseason- they never left. In a college basketball landscape that glorifies the one-and-done, this is what it means to be a team, to be a family. Anyone- fan, coach, player, staff- who was a part of the 2011 National Championship season knows this is the most important ingredient. To have not one but three leaders who understand this concept is a scary thought for opposing teams come tournament time.
This night is especially gratifying for me as it marks the last Gampel home game for my childhood friend, Tyler. Growing up in Mansfield, we wandered UCONN’s campus as little kids among UCONN greats such as Rudy Gay, Emeka Okafor and RIP Hamilton. Exiting high school practices you could see Gampel looming in the distance however it felt light years away. When Tyler committed to UCONN I was excited, but didn’t grasp the importance of this connection. The first “aha” moment occurred in warm-ups of the first game in Maui. While serving drastically different capacities, we were both in Hawaii representing the program we had idolized as kids against the top teams in the country. Next came the Big East Tournament at MSG and National Championship in Houston. Old friends from DC to Texas to Florida came out to not only watch UCONN, but Tyler. It is one thing to share a National Championship with your college friends, however when you can share the experience with childhood friends and family- it makes it that much more special. Suddenly, Gampel didn’t seem so far away. Through the ups and downs, it has been a great run and I will never forget the memories. Thank you Tyler and best of luck to you, Niels and Shabazz in the future.