Happy Huskies headed home with hardware
Seen as little more than a one-man novelty, Connecticut wasn't given much chance in the brutally tough Big East. A national title contender? Please.
With a bruising finish to an improbable run, the Huskies have a message for all the doubters: Shhh!
Connecticut wrapped up its third national championship Monday night, pushing Butler around for a 53-41 victory to secure a spot in history for coach Jim Calhoun and star Kemba Walker.
''In the beginning of the season, we were hearing a lot of negativity: too young, all we have is Kemba Walker, no true post presence,'' sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi said. ''With this team, we just worked hard. I'm happy the hard work has paid off and we were able to prove people wrong when they said we couldn't.''
The doubt started in the preseason, when Connecticut was picked 10th in the Big East and an afterthought in the polls. Calhoun wasn't even sure what he had in this group of mostly underclassmen, joking before the Maui Invitational he was still trying to learn everyone's name.
Walker raised the Huskies' profile - not to mention his - with a carry-on-his-back performance in Maui and did it again in the Big East tournament after 9-9 run through conference nearly derailed their season.
The Huskies (32-9) were a nearly unstoppable combination of star power and grit in the NCAA tournament, riding Walker's scoring bursts and body-bruising defense into the program's fourth Final Four.
Connecticut capped it off with two eye-of-the-beholder defensive gems, swarming Kentucky in the national semifinals, followed by a body-blow takedown of Butler in the title game, holding the Bulldogs to a championship-game low 18.8 percent shooting.
''We were unstoppable. That's why we're national champions,'' said Walker, who fought through a tough shooting night to lead UConn with 16 points in the final. ''We're the best team in the country.''
UConn's run rejuvenated Calhoun after one of his most difficult seasons in 39 years as a coach.
Coming off a trip to the Final Four the year before, Calhoun looked worn down in the 2009-10 season, the toll of an NCAA investigation and the death of his sister-in-law and college roommate exacerbating the difficulties his team had on the court.
But, after missing the NCAA tournament for one of the few times in his career, Calhoun seemed to have the bounce back in his step this season, pulling off one of the best coaching jobs of his career.
Relying on his entrenched basketball wisdom, Calhoun always seemed to know what move to make and precisely when to make it. He handed the reins of the offense over to Walker, his coaching extension on the floor, and brought the young players along with his own brand of tough-love nurturing.
When it was over, Calhoun had won his third title since 1999, joining John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as the only coaches to cut the final nets of the season three times.
''I've been fortunate to have some great teams at UConn, to win a couple of tournaments,'' Calhoun said. ''Very honestly, this group to me will all be incredibly special. They're all special in their own way, but I needed this team.''
None was more special than Walker.
The lanky 6-foot-1 junior proved to have broad shoulders, lifting up a young team with one of the best individual seasons in college basketball history.
Walker averaged 23.7 points and 4.6 assists, accounting for a hard-to-believe 45 percent of his team's points. More than that, though, he was a lead-by-example moral center for a young team, playing with all-out abandon on the court and keeping his focus in the right place off it.
Walker capped it by cutting down the nets inside Reliant Stadium, ensuring his place among UConn's long list off all-time greats.
''It can't get any better than this,'' Walker said. ''You see the tears on my face. I have so much joy in me, it's unreal. It's surreal. I'm so happy right now.''
There's no doubting the Huskies now.