The Paw Print
In a tightly contested but sloppy 40 minutes, the Connecticut Huskies men’s basketball team made the Butler Bulldogs look to be every bit of the small conference underdog they really were, using a wide scoring margin in the second half to seal a 53-41 victory on Monday night at Houston’s Reliant Stadium to capture their third national title since 1999.
Connecticut standout guard Kemba Walker finished with 16 points for the Huskies, whose incredible late-season run of eleven consecutive wins since the end of the a regular season that left the Huskies with a pedestrian 9-9 record in the highly competitive Big East forecasted none of the championship run that would come through the Big East tournament or the NCAA tournament.
Their season rocked by losing streaks, growing pains endured by a young but talented roster, and muddied by an NCAA scandal that proved the Huskies were guilty of not promoting an atmosphere of NCAA compliance, the Huskies proved their guts and grit outweighed everything else.
“Every time we play hard, great things always happen to us,” Walker said after the game.
On the national stage, it happened again.
Turning in a defensive show not often seen on any level of basketball, the Huskies held the Bulldogs to 12-for-64 shooting, good for an 18.8 percent clip that is the worst ever in a title game.
“Butler really plays defense,” said Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. “I mean, they really play defense. And we really play defense, and I think eventually our quickness and length got to them, but from a purist standpoint, if you really like defense, take a clip of this game.”
With the victory, the 68-year-old Calhoun became the oldest coach to win the NCAA championship, and joined legends of coaching John Wooden, Adolph Rupp. Mike Krzyzewski, and Bob Knight as only the fifth coach to win three or more titles in their career.
“My dad told me something a long time ago: You’re known by the company you keep,” Calhoun said. “That’s awfully sweet company.”
Accepting the reality that the rims were tightly wound and looked to be about as wide a Frisbee, Calhoun cajoled the win by insisting his players use their size advantage in the paint against the much-smaller Bulldogs, while also insisting on the kind of defensive effort that got UConn as far as it did during their remarkable winning streak, but which often was overlooked as Walker’s late-game heroics stole the national spotlight.
“So you need to understand that defense is going to take you and hold you in the game until your offense gets going, and that’s what I think happened tonight,” said Calhoun.
Once their offense got rolling, the Huskies were difficult to stop, even when Butler played tenacious defense. Connecticut outscored Butler 26-2 in the paint while Butler’s offense ran cold, even going a 13 minute, 26 second stretch in the second half connecting on only one field goal.
That cold spell turned a 25-19 Butler lead early in the second half into a 41-28 deficit that all but sealed a second consecutive loss by the Bulldogs in the national championship game against a traditional college basketball powerhouse.
Last year, the Bulldogs never fell behind by more than six points against the heavily favored Duke Blue Devils, before Gordon Hayward’s desperation half-court heave missed by less than three inches to seal a heartbreaking 61-59 loss. This year, UConn was celebrating before the clock reached zero, having all but sealed the victory when Butler’s offense ran cold.
“In my opinion, this one feels a little worse,” said Butler guard Ronald Nored. “Last year I was more shocked. This year is pretty tough.”
As is typically the case, there is joy and elation on the other side of heartbreak.
“You see the tears on my face,” Walker said. “I have so much joy in me, its unreal. It’s surreal. I’m so happy right now.”
Joining Walker, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, in double figures were guard Jeremy Lamb, who scored six of his 12 points during UConn’s pullaway run, and forward Alex Oriakhi, who scored 11 points to go with 11 rebounds and four blocks he collected while dominating the smaller Butler forwards inside.
Butler’s 41 points were 10 points fewer than the worst showing in the shot-clock era in a championship game, and the 18.8 percent shooting broke a record that had stood since 1941. The Bulldogs’ 12 field goals were also the second fewest in a championship game.
While there was no explanation other than cold shooting for Butler, standout guard Shelvin Mack gave credit to UConn’s defense.
“They’re very athletic,” said Mack. “They would contest shots that people normally wouldn’t be able to contest.”
Standout Bulldog forward Matt Howard was less complimentary of UConn’s defense, however.
“I felt like we kept trying to go back inside,” Howard said. “We had quite a few pretty good looks. They just weren’t going in.”
It certainly won’t go down as an offensive masterpiece, either. The Huskies made only 19 of 55 shots, and Walker’s game-high 16 points came on an abysmal 5-for-19 shooting.
“It was tough shooting in the first half, but in the second half, we stuck with each other,” Walker said. “We told each other we were going to make shots, and that’s what we did.”
It was the final page of a storybook season for the Huskies, albeit not in the traditional sense. Defined by believing even when things weren’t going according to plan, and having struggled at the end of the regular season, it looked like the Huskies time in the March Madness would be short lived.
Instead, the Huskies found themselves cutting down the last set of nets on Monday.
“We were unstoppable,” said Walker. “That’s why we’re national champions. We’re the best team in the country.”