Dogged determination pays off
Huskies’ bulldog mentality outlasts Butler in title game
HOUSTON – Connecticut is the top dog for the third time in history. The Huskies defeated Butler 53-41 in the DI men’s basketball national championship game on Monday night.
And was the epitome of dogged determination. How else to explain these numbers:
• Combined 15 of 58 from the field in the first half
• Combined 5 of 19 from 3-point range in the first half
• Combined 6 of 9 from the free-throw line in the first half
After regrouping in the locker room, the teams ended the night:
• Combined 31 of 119 from the field
• Combined 10 of 44 from 3-point range
• Combined 22 of 30 from the free-throw line
Take away time on the free-throw line and it breaks down to three of every four shots clanged iron.
Bottom line: It wasn’t pretty – but either team would have taken to cutting down the nets after 40 minutes of clang, clang, clang, swish.
“The major adjustment [in the second half] was that we were going to out-will them and out-work them and, eventually, we out-played them,” said UConn head coach Jim Calhoun, who hoisted the program’s third national championship trophy since 1999.
The Huskies reeled off 11 consecutive victories during the Big East and NCAA tournaments. By comparison, it took 6 minutes and 52 seconds for UConn to reach double figures in scoring on Monday night – taking a 10-8 lead on a basket by Kemba Walker with 13:08 remaining in the first half.
Walker, named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, finished 5 of 19 from the field – 0-for-4 from 3-point land – and 6 of 7 from the free-throw line for a game-high 16 points.
For Butler, Shelvin Mack had a team-high 13 points on a less-than-stellar 4 of 15 shooting – with all four field goals coming from beyond the 3-point arc, including a jumper to give Butler a 22-19 lead 0:01 before halftime.
“I wouldn’t say I was frustrated,” Mack said. “They’re a great team, great defensive team. They did a great job of contesting every shot. [The shots] just weren’t falling [Monday night].”
The combined 41 points was one more than the previous low for the first half of a championship game, set in 1946, with Oklahoma State (23) and North Carolina (17). Connecticut’s 19 points equaled California’s first-half effort of 1960.
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The Bulldogs eventually pushed the lead to 25-19 before UConn caught fire, relatively speaking. Jeremy Lamb’s 3-point basket at the 17:47 mark of the second half gave the Huskies a 26-25 lead, part of a 30-16 run to end the game.
After shooting just 22 percent in the first half (6 of 27), the law of averages had to be in Butler’s favor. They weren’t; the Bulldogs were 6 of 37 (16 percent) in the second half. During a 6 minute, 46 seconds stretch – from 19:21 to 12:35 – UConn outscored Butler 14-1 as the Bulldogs missed 13 shots during the run.
“You’re not always going to make shots,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “That’s part of the game. Very rarely will you go 12 of 64. But UConn had a lot to do with that. The credit deserves to go to them. … Certainly it’s frustrating.
“I think what happens in a game like that is they guard you do well, when you start to get a few open [shots], you’re not feeling comfortable. And we’ve done that to people on the other end. We’ve just never done it at that level.”
For the game, forward Matt Howard and center Andrew Smith, the Bulldogs’ top offensive weapons under the basket, were a combined 3-for-22 from the field. As a result, UConn outscored Butler 26-2 in the paint, led by center Alex Oriakhi with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
In the end, the Huskies’ 53 points were the lowest for a championship-winning team since Kentucky blistered Oklahoma State 46-36 in 1949.
“We’ve been down that road before, throughout this whole tournament,” Oriakhi said. “We’ve been down, and we never lose our composure. I think that’s the greatest thing about this team – we never get rattled.”
Rarely does a team win a game – much less a national championship – when its shooting percentage is clang, clang, swish, but UConn’s 34.5 percent trumped Butler’s 18.8 percent. And at the end of the night, the Huskies were tossed the biggest bone in the sport.