If a mid-major college basketball team is to win the NCAA college basketball national championship, it will have to come in another year. The UConn Huskies and head coach Jim Calhoun won their third national championship on Monday night by a score of 53-41 over the Butler Bulldogs.
A large portion of the UConn win comes thanks to Butler’s poor play both on offense and a lack of aggression on the boards.
UConn and Butler both played a horrible first half in the championship game and things only got worse in the second period of play. The teams combined for 41 total points, the lowest for a half since 1946. Butler finished the first half of play shooting 22.2-percent while UConn finished with a below average 29-percent.
“Sometimes shots don’t go in, and that’s basketball. But, again, I don’t want to say shots just didn’t go in,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens said. “UConn had a lot to do with that. So, again, the least of a coach’s concern is whether or not shots go in; it’s how you’re acting, how you’re operating, how you’re screening, how you’re getting to the point where your shot is taken.
“Then you trust that the work you’ve put in, the preparation you’ve put in, will help you make that shot. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why great teams give themselves a chance to win, even when they’re not shooting well, as UConn did.”
With those numbers, it didn’t seem like things could get worse. Unfortunately for Butler, it did.
The Butler Bulldogs went a combined ten minutes over two separate scoring droughts without scoring a basket of any sort. Butler finished the game with a measly 18.8-percent shooting average for the game. They couldn’t seem to buy a basket.
“I don’t know that I could tell you that we shot as poorly as we did,” forward Matt Howard said. “I knew it was pretty bad. But, you know, we kept thinking the shots were gonna go in. That’s the mindset you have to have.”
Matt Howard finished the game with seven points. Shelvin Mack finished the game as the only Butler player to score double digits with 13 points. It was an inauspicious end to the collegiate career of Howard, a first-team Final Four All-Tournament player along with Mack.
“Matt never took a day off in four years,” Brad Stevens said. “Even when he got his concussion against UIC, he was mad as heck at our trainer because our trainer wouldn’t let him play. He was right there in practice yelling at everybody, talking to everybody, communicating with everybody for four years, 6 a.m. practice after 6 a.m. practice. That kid never took one day off. In the classroom, he’s Academic All-American of the Year for a reason, because he works harder than everybody else.”
However, the UConn Huskies turned things around thanks to Jeremy Lamb, who went scoreless in the first half of play. Relying on their powerful inside game and spurred on by Lamb’s precision outside shooting, the Huskies slowly built their shooting percentage in the second half of play and added on to put away Butler.
“Butler really plays defense. They really play defense. And we I think play defense,” UConn head coach Jim Calhoun said. “I think eventually our quickness and length got to them. But from a purist’s standpoint, you want to teach them defense, take a clip of both teams, you’d see some terrific defense.”
UConn dominated Butler off the boards in the game, limiting any chance the Bulldogs had of recovering from their poor shooting night while protecting their offense from their own sloppy play at times. UConn out-rebounded Butler 53-41 with 17 of the rebounds coming on the offensive side of the ball.
“I think it was just Coach Cal from the beginning,” center Alex Oriakhi said. “He just told us we’d have to out-will and out-work. We knew Butler was a great team, because they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. I knew (Matt) Howard was definitely a great player because he’s been leading his team throughout, so I just tried to put as much pressure on their bigs as possible and just try to alter shots, and I was able to do that.”
Butler went into the half with the 3-point lead but UConn came out energized and it never seemed like Butler had a chance in the second half of play. UConn went on an 8-0 run that lasted almost four minutes of play early in the second half and then jumped out to another six minute shut out run on Butler. With almost ten minutes of play in the second half scoreless, Butler couldn’t keep up once Lamb and Walker began to hit their shots.
Jeremy Lamb finished the game with 12 points and Kemba Walker ended the contest with 16.
“It can’t get any better than this. 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.”
UConn finished the season struggling, losing four of their last five. They responded by winning 11 in a row to win the Big East Tournament and are now the NCAA college basketball national champions. Despite the problems, both health-wise and publically with the NCAA violations, Jim Calhoun has proven to be one of the best coaches in college basketball history.
“My legacy, if it ever comes down to who I am, what I am, all I’ve ever asked anyone to ever do, was talk to my players. Talk to those hundreds and hundreds of guys who played for me,” Calhoun said. “Talk to Jimmy Boeheim and the people I’ve coached against for a long period of time, talk to people from our league, then maybe you’ll find out more about me. Then if you want to look at my legacy number-wise, that’s okay.
“My dad told me something a long time ago: You’re known by the company you keep. That’s awfully sweet company.”
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