UConn's improbable journey ends with title
Remember how all of this started?
It was a Thursday afternoon at Madison Square Garden with the best player in the country shaking, strutting and then burying a buzzer-beater that, as we found out Monday night, changed the trajectory of a team and a college basketball season.
During the next four weeks — magical, ethereal weeks after Kemba Walker’s 18-foot jumper to beat Pittsburgh in a Big East quarterfinal last month — what UConn became took on so many different forms.
It was a survivor of five games in five days to win the conference tournament. It was a passenger on Walker’s breathtaking 36-point tear through San Diego State in the Sweet 16. It was a launching pad for a new star in freshman Jeremy Lamb, who carried his exhausted teammates through an Elite Eight to the Final Four. And finally, Monday night, it was a hungry boa constrictor that suffocated Butler, 53-41, and won the most improbable of Jim Calhoun’s three national championships.
“This group has taken me on one of the truly special journeys,” he said. “When I needed a little more, they gave me 10-fold.”
Unranked in the preseason, ninth place in the Big East, UConn’s accomplishment to win 11 consecutive tournament games is a testament to endurance, good fortune and the ability of a transcendent college player to lift a program to a championship.
But the way UConn won it Monday, what it did to Butler on the biggest stage, was almost inhumane. If this game is remembered at all, it will be for the historic futility of Butler, which shot just 18.8 percent from the field and scored just a single bucket in the paint.
The Bulldogs made a few 3s and, for the longest time, felt like they were right there. Instead, each miss sucked away a little more oxygen, to the point where they made three straight clean looks at the rim near the 10-minute mark look impossible.
By the end, Butler had made just 3 of 31 shots inside the 3-point arc, the worst percentage in any college basketball game all season. That had a lot to do with Butler, but it was just as much about UConn.
“What happens in a game like that is they guard you so well that when you start to get a few open ones, you’re not feeling comfortable,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve done that to people … just never at that level. They challenge shots better than any team we played all year.”
And they kept challenging, all the way until Matt Howard’s final miss with 10 seconds left when Alex Oriakhi altered a meaningless layup, allowing Lamb to grab the rebound as Shabazz Napier wrapped him in a championship hug.
"We felt unstoppable," Walker said.
For all the feel-good memories Butler created on the way to its second straight championship game, what so often got lost was the way it inflicted pain. Playing the Bulldogs was always like a bloodletting, how they would screen and cut and bump and just dog you defensively until your legs and your will gave way.
For a while, that’s the direction this game appeared to be heading. Yes, it was ugly, but it was beautifully ugly. There were clumsy plays, but not mistakes. It was effort on effort, extracted from exhaustion, the artistry of it hidden underneath a mess of bodies strewn across the lane. UConn was long and athletic, and Butler couldn’t get to the rim without seeing it. Butler was physical and fearless, and UConn couldn't get a shot or even a pass off without feeling it.
So that’s where we were for 20 minutes, which ended when Shelvin Mack buried a long, contested 3-pointer right before the halftime buzzer, putting Butler in front 22-19. Even with all the missed shots, the Bulldogs were controlling the pace, guarding like crazy and most of all, not allowing Walker to get any separation off ball screens to shoot.
Calhoun revealed afterward that Walker, who tweaked his ankle in Saturday’s semifinal win over Kentucky, didn't practice on Sunday. Making just 3 of 11 shots in the first half with two fouls — the second on a charge drawn beautifully by Howard — it seemed that UConn would have to find a way to get him more involved.
And yet, in the second half, it didn’t happen that way at all. Walker was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, but at the end of a season that was mostly about him, he was gassed, injured and almost invisible. He scored 16 points but went just 5 for 19 from the field, didn’t make a 3-pointer, didn’t have an assist.
So what this became was a matter of who would relent. UConn answered that question with stop after stop until the lead got to 13 with 7:33 left, justifying the amount of time Calhoun had spent emphasizing defense to a team that played five freshmen heavy minutes in a national championship.
“We thought the way to disguise our youth was to get better at defense every day,” he said. “Down the stretch, we’d take literally 50 percent of practice on nothing but defense. It saved us all the way through this tournament.”
A year ago, UConn’s players watched the national championship and rooted for Butler. The Huskies had endured an awful season by their standards, finishing 18-16 and losing in the second round of the NIT. With such a new, young roster following that debacle, something like this didn’t seem possible last November. Heck, it was hard to envision this even a month ago when UConn lost four of five to end the regular season.
And yet, there the Huskies were Monday night, not a great team but the only one left standing. It didn’t require any heroics from Walker, just a few shots going in and a defensive effort to remember. It was a long way from where they started, but in a year with a championship there for the taking, it turned out to be plenty good enough.