Here was a story of modern college basketball survival. Connecticut was dead in early March, as sure as the bare New England earth was lifeless and brown, awaiting spring. It was a young team with an old coach, beaten down and hopeless, ready for the season to end. And then with each postseason win—first in the Big East tournament and then in the NCAA—came a breath of hope, with each defeated opponent a whiff of belief, until just one other team remained. That one team was Butler, owed deeply by the basketball gods and beloved by America and so, on the last night of a long season, in the national championship game, survival would never be a more daunting enterprise. A title would never be more truly earned.
It would be poetic to say that the Huskies played a masterpiece, but they did not. Appropriately, they survived again on Monday night at cavernous Reliant Stadium in Houston, grinding out a 53--41 victory marked by historic futility. Butler made only 12 field goals—including just three two-point baskets—and shot an alltime NCAA final low of 18.8%. "Our defense," said freshman forward Roscoe Smith, "was unreal." It was UConn's third title since 1999, the most of any team over that span, and the third for coach Jim Calhoun, 68, who has endured a long year of personal tragedy and professional scrutiny to join John Wooden (10), Adolph Rupp (four), Mike Krzyzewski (four) and Bob Knight (three) as the only coaches with more than two.
Even as the final seconds melted off the clock, a victory safely in hand, Calhoun sprinted up the sideline and dropped to one knee, exhorting his team to provide one final stop in its breathless 11-game, 28-day run through the Big East and the Big Dance. In the stands across from the Connecticut bench, Calhoun's son, Jim, screamed to his mother, Pat, "Look at Dad! He's still coaching." Moments later Pat Calhoun fell into a long embrace with her husband of 44 years, not knowing if it would be the last of their victories together. "If it is the end," she said, standing in a small pile of confetti that wrapped around her shoes, "what a beautiful way to finish."
It was almost surely the final game for Huskies junior guard Kemba Walker, who is expected to leave for the NBA after carrying his team to a title like no player since Kansas forward Danny Manning 23 years ago. In the final, running on fumes, Walker had a game-high 16 points to go along with nine rebounds. "There are no words for this," he said on the floor when it was done. Nearby, his mother, Andrea, spoke in a voice turned hoarse by a night of screaming. "He molded this team," she said, "and they followed his lead."
The emotions were no less raw in the Butler locker room, where the silence of defeat was interrupted only by the occasional sniffles of crestfallen players. A year ago the Bulldogs captivated college basketball nation by reaching the championship game in their hometown of Indianapolis, losing to Duke 61--59 when sophomore Gordon Hayward's half-court heave caromed off the backboard and rim at the buzzer.
They were not supposed to return. Hayward turned pro and the Bulldogs struggled to a 14--9 record before catching fire. They were the story of the year. Again. And so, Monday's title game was seen by some as a morality play between a UConn program (and coach) that has been placed on probation for recruiting violations and a Butler program that seems to exemplify the ideals of college sports.
Connecticut, which finished with a 32--9 record, had reached the championship game with a brutal 56--55 win over Kentucky last Saturday night. It was yet another defensive battle that left the Huskies, and particularly Walker, exhausted. Yet they are an uncommonly young team, with seven freshmen. And the fatigue would not last. "The coaches told us to take it easy," said senior guard and co-captain Donnell Beverly. "But we just did our regular stuff."
On Sunday night former high school teammates Alex Oriakhi and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel stayed up until 4 a.m. talking about the game. At breakfast the entire team rapped out beats on their juice glasses, playful energy replacing nerves.
Behind the scenes the Connecticut coaching staff had a plan to beat Butler. "On defense it all came down to stopping Shelvin Mack," said first-year assistant Kevin Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran, referring to Butler's 6'3" junior guard, who had lit up Pittsburgh for 30 points and Florida for 27 in the Big Dance. The Huskies would "hedge" against Mack on all screens, moving a big man into his path. (A scouting report left behind in UConn's locker room said, "Stay in the entire possession. They run offense fast and hard and will not quit on a possession.") On offense Connecticut would pound the paint. "Butler's defensive philosophy is to get out on three-point shooters," said Ollie. "But they aren't as concerned with the inside." Oriakhi, a 6'9" sophomore forward, capitalized, finishing with 11 points.
Yet at halftime Butler held a 22--19 lead. Walker came into the locker room first, before the coaching staff, and shouted at the team, "Let's do this together!" Calhoun followed and demanded defense, as he has done for nearly four decades.