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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. 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 NCAAs—came a breath of hope, with each defeated opponent a whiff of belief, until just one other team remained. That 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 more daunting. 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 that Monday night at cavernous Reliant Stadium in Houston, grinding out a 53--41 victory marked by historic futility. The Bulldogs made only 12 field goals—including just three two-point baskets—and shot an alltime NCAA-final low of 18.8%. "Our defense," says Huskies 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 endured a long year of personal tragedy and professional scrutiny to become only the fifth coach in history 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 make 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 fell into a long embrace with her husband of 44 years, not knowing if it would be the last of their victories together. If Jim would soon retire. "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."
Connecticut, which finished with a 32--9 record, had reached the championship game with a brutal 56--55 win over Kentucky two nights before. 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," says senior guard and co-captain Donnell Beverly. "But we just did our regular stuff."
The night before the title matchup 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 UConn coaching staff had a plan to beat Butler. "On defense it all came down to stopping Shelvin Mack," says assistant Kevin Ollie, referring to the Bulldogs' 6' 3" junior guard, who had lit up Pittsburgh for 30 points and Florida for 27 on the way to the final. 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-center, capitalized, finishing with 11 points.
Yet at halftime the Bulldogs 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.
What followed was epic. Butler scored just six points in nearly 14 minutes after halftime, and that three-point lead dissolved into an insurmountable 41--28 deficit. Freshman guard Jeremy Lamb scored all 12 of his points in the second half, Connecticut's inside players—primarily Oriakhi and the 6' 8" Roscoe Smith—contested every shot, and the Huskies finished with 10 blocks. The most telling moment came with 11:27 to play, when 6' 11" Bulldogs center Andrew Smith received an entry pass deep in the lane and passed outside to guard Chase Stigall. "I guess," Oriakhi said later, "he didn't want to get his shot blocked again."