HOUSTON -- The rims were tight, the shots weren't falling and points were at a premium -- surely one of the ugliest championships played on college basketball's biggest stage.
Ah, but for Kemba Walker and UConn, the final score was a thing of beauty.
In a game that featured 40 minutes of guts and grit, Connecticut made Butler look like the underdog it really was, winning the NCAA men's title Monday night with an old-fashioned, grinding, 53-41 beatdown of the Bulldogs.
Walker finished with 16 points for the Huskies (32-9), whose amazing late-season streak could be stopped only by the final buzzer. They won their 11th straight game since closing the regular season with a 9-9 Big East record that foreshadowed none of this.
"Every time we play hard, great things always happen to us," Walker said.
It happened again.
They won the 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 short on aesthetics but full of tough-nosed defense, an old-school game, the kind of game a coaching lifer such as Jim Calhoun could love.
"Butler really plays defense," Calhoun said. "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."
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 only the fifth coach to get to the top three or more times.
He did it to close 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.
Just like the last game, none of this was easy, but the Huskies kept overcoming.
"They truly were brothers, they truly were trusting in each other, and that was very, very special," Calhoun said. "This group has taken me on a very special journey, better than I could possibly imagine."
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.
"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," Calhoun said.
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 outwill 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 minutes, 26 seconds 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 half-court 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 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.
"You just hope the shots go in," Butler guard Zach Hahn said. "That's how it's been all tournament. Whenever we needed a big shot, somebody came up with it. I guess we just ran out of steam. Nobody could make 'em."
Butler's 41 points were 10 points fewer than the worst showing in the shot-clock era in a championship game. (Michigan scored 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.
"They're very athletic," Mack said. "They would contest shots that people normally wouldn't be able to contest."
While the Bulldogs and coach Brad 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 when it was all-or-nothing, one-and-done, than the Huskies.
Counting three wins at the Maui Invitational, Connecticut finished 14-0 in tournament games this year -- including an unprecedented five-wins-in-five-nights success at the Big East tournament, then six games (two each week) in the one that really counts, one of the most unpredictable versions of March Madness ever.
It closed 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 tried to do it in a most un-Butler way -- by running a little and jacking up 3s.
Didn't work, and when the Bulldogs tried later to make baskets in the paint, it really looked like there was a lid there. During their dry spell, Howard, Garrett Butcher and Andrew Smith all missed open shots from under the bucket. It just wasn't their day.
"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 won't go down as an offensive masterpiece for UConn, either.
The Huskies made only 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: probably 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 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, 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.
"We were unstoppable," Walker said. "That's why we're national champions. We're the best team in the country."
- John Cahill
- Verne Harris
- Doug Shows