UConn puts lid on Butler to win NCAA championship

Connecticut teammates embrace after beating Butler to claim NCAA championship.
Connecticut teammates embrace after beating Butler to claim NCAA championship.
Posted: April 05, 2011

HOUSTON - This will not go down as a memorable championship game unless you like defense, toughness and what looked like reverse peach baskets, the bottom on top. Offense was a rumor that was never found, except for a stretch of the second half when Butler finally hit the wall and Connecticut won the game and the championship.

The score was 53-41, the ending not nearly as pleasing as the 67-game tournament that had 23 games decided by five points or less or in overtime. This was not like that.

These were two teams that came in with a combined 18 losses and it showed. They attempted 119 shots and missed 88 of them. The defense was very good, but it wasn't that good. Well, maybe UConn's was. Butler shot just 12-for-64 (18.8 percent). Yes, that is a championship-game record. Butler was 3-for-31 on two-point shots and was outscored in the lane, 26-2. UConn blocked 10 shots. Seemed like 30.

Butler was trying to win the championship game a year after losing it. Connecticut was trying to win a championship that did not seem terribly likely when the regular season ended.

When the Huskies (32-9) were done, their 41 games were the most of the modern era. They had won the toughest in-season tournament, the Maui Invitational, the toughest conference tournament, the Big East, with the five-wins-in-5-days tour de force and won six more against five conference champions to get it all.

"This group of kids have given me a year," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "Every coach should get at least 1 year like this."

Or at least an end to a year like this.

"This championship is incredibly wonderful to bring back to Connecticut and our fans, but to these kids, the work they put in, it's maybe the happiest moment of my life," Calhoun said.

Calhoun, 68, is the oldest coach to win a title. His team, however, was very young. And very good when it counted.

UConn is now 6-1 in Final Fours with three national championships (1999, 2004). It finished 17-0 against nonleague opponents and made an 11-game run to the finish line that can only be duplicated (good luck with that) and never surpassed.

Coatesville's Rip Hamilton was the ultimate UConn NCAA hero in 1999, but he was with a better team. Kemba Walker, the kid from the Bronx whose mother Andrea used to hear him dribbling outside in the middle of the night, put on a show for the ages, scoring 141 points over the six games and making great play after great play at both ends - rebounding, passing, defending, leading, whatever it took.

Walker (16 points, nine rebounds) was just 5-for-19 in the championship game. But it wasn't about shooting percentages for him. It was about winning a championship. Walker was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. A vote was not necessary.

"I can't even talk right now," Walker said. "I feel weak right now . . . There is nothing more to say. This is a dream come true."

Walker will now take his place alongside Danny Manning and Christian Laettner, tournament heroes who were always there in the most important moments.

"It can't get any better than this," Walker said. "You see the tears on my face. I have so much joy in me. It's unreal. It's surreal."

If you wanted to see balls go in the basket, this was not your game. But it was never going to be like that. It was going to about loose balls, offensive rebounds, taking charges and trying to find a way to get a few points every now and again.

"If you had told me Walker and [Jeremy] Lamb would need 27 shots to get 28 points . . . ," Butler coach Brad Stevens said.

He would have liked his chances. What he couldn't know is that his team would need 64 shots to get 41 points.

Butler (28-10) had taken 26 shots in nearly 20 minutes and missed 20 of them. But it had the ball for a final shot of the first half. Shelvin Mack dribbled the clock down, rose up at the top of the key and buried a trey at the buzzer, giving Butler a 22-19 lead despite shooting 6-for-27 (22.2 percent).

You had to go back to 1945 to find a lower-scoring half in a national championship game.

Never was the value of the three-point shot more apparent than after 20 minutes. The Bulldogs were 1-for-13 on two-point shots. They could not see the basket because UConn's bigs would not let them.

In the first half, the Bulldogs hit five treys from 14 tries. And they got to the foul line eight times. UConn did not make a single trey and just one foul shot. So Butler won the two lines, 20-1. UConn dominated the glass (27-18) and the lane points, 14-0.

Butler actually got its lead to 25-19, but that was it. UConn shut off everything from there and went off on a 22-3 run, its defense impregnable.

For the game, UConn shot just 19-for-55 (34.5 percent). The Huskies were 2-for-23 from the arc in the Final Four, making one lonely trey in each game. But it is not about how many points you score. It is about how many more points you score than the other team. And UConn kept doing that until there were no more games to play.

To Butler, the Huskies must have looked like the skyscrapers in downtown Houston. After getting that six-point lead, the Bulldogs missed 22 of their next 23 shots during one stretch that must have seemed like it would never end.

Even Butler could not miss that many shots and win.

"The major [second-half] adjustment was that we were going to outwill them and outwork them," Calhoun said.

They beat a team whose will was its best attribute, which tells you how much UConn wanted it.

Butler's Matt Howard, so good in this tournament and in his career, shot just 1-for-13 in his final game. He wasn't alone. It was that kind of night and the vast majority of it could be attributed to UConn's defense. It really was that good.

The Butler players pet a bulldog named Blue when they are introduced. It is a team that is hard not to like. No, the Bulldogs did not get their national championship on the court, but according to "Inside Higher Ed," they had the top multiyear APR (Academic Performance Rating) in the 68-team field.

UConn was not the best team this season. Its 9-9 Big East record told that story. But it was the best team when it mattered. The Huskies got on a roll and never let up - until it was done.

So UConn will get the championship glory - again. And Butler will get the glory of having been there - again.

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