HOUSTON — The game was better suited for a dusty old gym than a state-of-the-art stadium – the offense and shooting more the stuff of a long-ago era than 2011.
The championship trophy? Well, that will look good in the case up at UConn, where a season of perseverance closed with an 11-game winning streak and a spirit-lifting win for coach Jim Calhoun, to say nothing of a crowning moment for a one-of-a-kind player named Kemba.
In a game that featured more grit than glamour and more brawn than beauty, Connecticut made Butler look like the underdog it really was Monday night, winning the NCAA title with an old-fashioned 53-41 beatdown of the Bulldogs.
Star guard Kemba Walker finished with 16 points for the Huskies (32-9), whose amazing late-season streak kept going right through the final buzzer. They won their 11th straight game – five at the Big East tournament and six in March Madness – since closing the regular season with a 9-9 conference record that foreshadowed none of this.
“Going into games, we always say, ‘If you miss a shot, it’s all right, but if you don’t play hard, it’s not good enough,’” Walker said.
Nothing to worry about in this one, then, one of the ugliest games in memory on the sport’s biggest stage.
UConn won this title with a defensive showing for the ages, holding Butler to 12-for-64 shooting. That’s 18.8 percent, the worst ever in a title game.
It was a game short on aesthetics but full of tough-nosed defense; an old-school game, the kind a coaching lifer like Calhoun had to love.
“From a purist standpoint, if you really like defense, take a clip of this game,” he said.
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At age 68, he became the oldest coach to win the NCAA championship. He won his third title since 1999 and joined John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as the only coaches to get to the top three or more times.
Calhoun closed out a season marked by losing streaks, mistakes made by a young, growing roster and sullied by an NCAA scandal that wrapped up with the embarrassing conclusion that the coach failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance.
Exactly like the last game, none of this was easy, but the Huskies and their coach kept plugging away.
“I think we helped him overcome everything,” Walker said. “It’s not much to say. We won two of the biggest tournaments on the collegiate level. I think we made his year.”
And he made theirs.
Calhoun coaxed this win out of his team by accepting the reality that the rims were rejecting shots and looked about as wide as a pancake on a cold-shooting, defensive-minded night in cavernous Reliant Stadium. He did it by making his players pound the ball inside and insisting on the kind of defense that UConn played during this remarkable run, but which often got overshadowed by Walker’s theatrics.
UConn trailed 22-19 after a first half that came straight out of the ’40s.
“The halftime speech was rather interesting,” Calhoun said. “The adjustment was, we were going to out-will them and outwork them.”
And so they did.
Connecticut outscored Butler by an unthinkable 26-2 in the paint. The Bulldogs (28-10), in their second straight title game and hoping to put the closing chapter on the ultimate “Hoosiers” story, went a mind-numbing 13:26 in the second half making only one field goal.
During that time, a 25-19 lead turned into a 41-28 deficit. This for a team that never trailed Duke by more than six during last year’s epic final.
That time, Gordon Hayward’s desperation halfcourt heave at the buzzer bounced off the backboard and rim, barely missing – a breathtaking ending to a 61-59 loss. This time, UConn was celebrating before the clock hit zero, Calhoun pumping his fists and hugging an assistant while the Huskies ran to the sideline and soaked in the confetti.
“In my opinion, this one feels a little worse,” said Butler’s shut-down guard Ronald Nored. “Last year I was more shocked. This year is pretty tough.”
The version of “Hoosiers” with the happy ending is still available on DVD.
UConn, meanwhile, gets the real celebration.
“You see the tears on my face,” Walker said. “I have so much joy in me, it’s unreal. It’s surreal. I’m so happy right now.”
Joining Walker, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, in double figures were Jeremy Lamb with 12 points, including six during UConn’s pullaway run, and Alex Oriakhi with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Just as impressive were the stats UConn piled up on defense. Four steals and 10 blocks, including four each by Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith, and a total clampdown of Butler’s biggest stars, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack. Howard went 1 for 13 and Mack went 4 for 15.
“It’s a brutal team to play against when you’re behind,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s almost impossible.”
The numbers bore that out.
Butler’s 41 points were 10 points fewer than the worst showing in the shot-clock era in a championship game. (Michigan had 51 in a loss to Duke in 1992), and the 18.8 percent shooting broke a record that had stood since 1941. Butler’s 12 field goals were the second fewest in a championship game – three more than Oklahoma made way back in 1949. But clearly not enough.
Butler missed from outside early and inside late. During its drought in the second half, Howard, Garrett Butcher and Andrew Smith all missed shots from right under the basket. Indeed, there were times when it seemed like there was a lid up there.
“I don’t know I could tell you we shot as poorly as we did,” Howard said. “I knew it was pretty bad. But we kept thinking the shots were going to go in. That’s the mindset you have to have.”
While the Bulldogs and Stevens made history by doing it “The Butler Way” and bringing this school with 4,500 students within a win of the championship for two straight years, UConn played big-boy basketball in a big-boy league and suffered through some big-time problems.
Calhoun had to address the NCAA troubles more than once during what was supposed to be one of the best weekends of his life. He admitted he had his share of warts and said he has begrudgingly accepted the three-game suspension he’ll have to serve when the conference season starts next year.
On this night, though, he wasn’t thinking about his problems, only the exclusive fraternity he joined with Wooden, Rupp, Knight and Krzyzewski.
“My dad told me something a long time ago: You’re known by the company you keep,” Calhoun said. “That’s awfully sweet company.”
Nobody did it better this season than when it was all-or-nothing, one-and-done, than the Huskies.
Connecticut finished 14-0 in tournament games this year: 3-0 in the Maui Invitational, 5-0 (over five straight nights) at the Big East tournament, then 6-0 in the one that really counts, one of the most unpredictable versions of March Madness ever.
The tournament ended with 11th-seeded VCU in the Final Four and with eighth-seeded Butler joining the 1985 Villanova team as the highest seed to play in a championship game.
Villanova won that game by taking the air out of the ball and upsetting Georgetown.
Butler couldn’t pull off the same kind of upset.
“It’s very frustrating when you have your chances and your opportunities and you just let them slip away,” Mack said. “Just not being solid.”
It wasn’t perfect for Connecticut, either.
The Huskies only made 19 of 55 shots, and Walker’s 16 points came on 5-for-19 shooting. But through the ups and downs of the junior’s college career, he has shown there are lots of way to lead – with words in the locker room, by example in the weight room and by doing the little things like playing defense and grabbing rebounds. He had nine on this night and finished with 15 in two games, including the 56-55 win over Kentucky in the semifinals.
His biggest offensive highlight: The twisting, scooping layup he made with 10:15 left that put UConn ahead 39-28 – a double-digit lead that was essentially insurmountable in this kind of contest.
It was the final, successful chapter in a season defined by believing even when things weren’t going so great. This team lost its last two regular-season games and looked like it would spend a short time in the March Madness bracket. Instead, the Huskies were the team cutting down the last set of nets.
“This group has taken me on one of the great special journeys,” Calhoun said. “Better than I could possibly imagine.”