NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 28: during the regional semifinal of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 28, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
This has the feel of something special. Unlike the last time UConn faced Iowa St., when an uninspiring effort led to a one-and-done appearance in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, the 2014 version of this squad reminds a lot of people of what Jim Calhoun, Kemba Walker and company accomplished three years ago: 11 straight wins -- five victories in five days in the Big East Tournament, followed by six more in the Big Dance -- that culminated in a national title.
Walker has been replaced by Shabazz Napier, who was a freshman on that championship squad, and Calhoun paved the way for Kevin Ollie to take over as coach. But this upstart group possesses the very same confidence we saw in the 2010-11 team. And on Friday night against the Cyclones, that manifested itself in a 81-76 win that was never really that close.
The Huskies led by 10 at the break, and were up 63-51 with 5:20 to go before Iowa St. made its patented end-of-game run. But UConn converted 18 of 19 free throws down the stretch and DeAndre Daniels, who has NBA talent oozing out of his pores but can occasionally shrink in big moments, played the game of his life, lighting up the Cyclones for 27 points on 10 of 15 shooting.
After the game, CBS Sports' Allie LaForce asked Daniels, who also had 10 rebounds, if he had ice in his veins.
"This whole team has ice in their veins," he said. "It's starts with Shabazz Napier, he's the leader of this team and he plays hard every night. And we just follow his lead."
And in typical Napier fashion, the senior all-everything point guard played 37 minutes and had 19 points, five rebounds, and five assists.
The other half of one of the nation's best backcourt duos, Ryan Boatright, added 16 points in as solid a game as you'll see him play. And perhaps most impressive, freshman Terrence Samuel played 23 minutes in Ollie's three-guard lineup and added 10 points without a turnover.
But after the game, Ollie lauded the team's consistency at the charity stripe, which ultimately paved the way to the win.
"We practice free throws a lot," Ollie told said. That's mental fortitude and that's what they've got.
"I keep telling you, they're fighters. ... But it's the defense, though. The defense is what's carrying us. We're getting stops and we're taking care of the basketball."
When asked what happened in the final five minutes when Iowa St. cut the lead from 12 to five, Ollie smiled and said, "Oh, I'm not worried about that. We're going to the Elite 8 and they can have that. I'm not worried about that. The spotlight is on [our players]. They've been terrific, they've been through a lot, they're loyal to what UConn is, and we want to keep going on."
The coach also thanked the UConn fans for making Madison Square Garden their home away from Gampel.
"It's definitely an advantage," he said, "but at the end of the day it's a basketball game. We're all about planting seeds, and like I said, there's no better place to plant seeds than in a garden. And we're going to continue to plant seeds and hopefully we can come out of this region and head to Texas."
Next up: The winner of the Michigan St.-Virginia game.
"You know, (whoever we face) it's going to be a great challenge for us, and that's what we're all about," Ollie said. "We have to respect our opponent but we've got to think about us too. We've got to get back to work ... and keep planting seeds, and make sure we take care of business each and every time down because the second hand on the clock doesn't ever go backwards. It always goes forward. We don't want to waste any time."