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 with an old-fashioned, grinding 53-41 beatdown of the Bulldogs on Monday night.
Walker finished with 16 points for the Huskies (32-9), who won their 11th consecutive 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 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 only the fifth coach to win three NCAA titles – joining the likes of John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight.
“It may be the happiest moment of my life,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun coaxed this win out of his team 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 1940s.
“The halftime speech was rather interesting,” Calhoun said. “The adjustment was, we were going to outwill 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 half-court 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.
“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.”
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 blocked shots, 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.
“You just hope the shots go in,” Butler guard Zach Hahn said. “That’s how it’s been all tournament. Whenever we needed a big shot, somebody came up with it. I guess we just ran out of steam. Nobody could make ’em.”
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 – when Washington State shot 21.5 percent (14-65) in a 39-34 loss to Wisconsin.
“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.
The Huskies, meanwhile, made just 19 out of 55 shots (34.5 percent), including Walker’s 5-for-19 effort. His biggest offensive highlight: A twisting, scooping layup with 10:15 left that put UConn up 39-28 – a lead that was essentially insurmountable in this kind of contest.
“It was tough shooting in the first half, but in the second half, we stuck with each other,” Walker said. “We told each other we were going to make shots, and that’s what we did.”
It was the final, successful chapter in a season defined by believing even when things weren’t going so great. This team lost its last two regular-season games and looked like it would spend a short time in the March Madness bracket. Instead, the Huskies were the team cutting down the last set of nets.
“We’ve been down that road before throughout the whole tournament,” Oriakhi said. “We just keep playing basketball and we stick together, and I think that’s what’s most important.”