HOUSTON (AP) — The only thing that could stop Kemba Walker and Connecticut’s amazing run was the final buzzer.
On a night when the massive arena felt like a dusty old gym, UConn made Butler look like the underdog it really was, winning the national championship Monday night with an old-fashioned, grinding 53-41 beatdown of the Bulldogs.
Walker finished with 16 points for the Huskies (32-9), who won their 11th straight game since closing the regular season with a 9-9 Big East record that foreshadowed none of this.
They closed it out with a defensive showing for the ages, holding Butler to a 12-for-64 shooting. That’s 18.8 percent, the worst ever in a title game.
It was one of the ugliest games anyone can remember on the sport’s biggest stage. But definitely the kind of game a grizzled old coach like Jim Calhoun could love.
At age 68, he became the oldest coach to win the NCAA championship and joined John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as only the fifth coach to win three NCAA titles.
“It may be the happiest moment of my life,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun coaxed this win out of his team by accepting the reality that the rim looked about as wide as a pancake on a cold-shooting, defensive-minded night in Houston. 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 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 halfcourt heave bounced off the backboard and rim, barely missing. This time, UConn was celebrating before the buzzer sounded, Calhoun pumping his fists and hugging an assistant while the Huskies ran to the sideline and soaked in the confetti.
The version of “Hoosiers” with the happy ending is still available on DVD.
UConn, meanwhile, gets the real celebration.
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.
“They’re a great defensive team,” Mack said. “They did a great job of contesting every shot. They just weren’t falling today.”
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.
“Without question, 41 points and 12 of 64 is not good enough to win any game, let alone the national championship,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
While 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 problems.
Aside from the .500 Big East record, it was a rough year off the court for the Huskies and their coaching lifer, whose season was tarnished by an NCAA investigation that found Calhoun failed to create an atmosphere of compliance in the program. He admitted he wasn’t perfect and has begrudgingly accepted the three-game suspension he’ll have to serve when the conference season starts next year.
Then again, given this performance, it’s clear UConn does its best work when it’s all-or-nothing, one-and-done.
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.
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: 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.
The only question now is whether he’ll be back for an encore.
On a night like this, he wasn’t thinking that far ahead.
“May 8, I’ll be graduating,” he said.
Graduating with a title and a name nobody will ever forget: Just call him Kemba, UConn’s newest champion.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)