HOUSTON – The 2011 National Championship game wasn’t the ugliest basketball game played this year – but as someone tweeted early in the game “the rims are winning.”
Bounced shots, poor passing and a shot selection only a Jimmer could love marred the first half of Monday night’s underdog clash.
Butler’s field goal percentage was 22.2 percent in the first half and UConn’s wasn’t much better at 29 percent. The 22-19 halftime score was the lowest score in a championship game since 1946 and one can only assume they played that game with a medicine ball.
One cliché Texans like to spit out is “Everything is bigger in Texas.” Everything except the rims in Reliant Stadium.
There were few minutes of grace in this game and they belonged to Jeremy Lamb. Lamb showed off his athleticism with a breakaway dunk that was the first slam in the championship game in two years, and halfway through the second half he made a NBA-worthy highlight where his head was above the rim.
The National Championship victory was the Huskies 11th consecutive win, an impressive feat. To put that in perspective, this UConn team won 11 ‘win or go home’ games.
“The championship is incredibly wonderful to bring back home to Connecticut and our fans,” UConn’s head coach Jim Calhoun said. “But to give to these kids, the work they put in, it’s maybe, professionally, the happiest moment of my life.”
Butler stumbled in the second half, sometimes looking like a bad rec league team you would find at your local YMCA. Except most rec league teams don’t shoot 18 percent from the field.
Despite the painful loss, Butler head coach Brad Stevens handled himself with the grace and class that is quickly becoming his trademark.
“I was proud of our guys,” he said after the game. “I thought we got decent looks in the second half. We just missed quite a few. Credit UConn for defending the way they do because I thought they challenged shots better than any team we’ve played all year.”
Butler was the 19th team to compete in back-to-back championships. The Bulldogs were the first team from a non-power conference to accomplish that feat since San Francisco in 1955. The Dons were lead by young man named Bill Russell, who turned out to be a pretty decent basketball player. The Bulldogs were the fourth team to lose in back-to-back games.
The Bulldogs’ stat sheet was brutal – 18.8 percent from the field, 27.3 percent from behind the arc, and they were outrebounded 53 to 41.
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“Without question, you know, 41 points, 12 of 64 is not good enough to win any game, let alone the national championship game,” Stevens said. “I thought we guarded as well as we could. I thought we gambled a little bit late because we had to, because we were just trying to figure out something to generate, you know, a turn of the tide, and we just couldn’t.”
Matt Howard was named to the All-Tournament team but only scored seven points in Monday’s game, shooting a forgettable 1-for-13 from the floor. Shelvin Mack joined Howard on the All-Tournament team and led the Bulldogs with 13 points. But he was gunning the ball all night. Mack jacked the ball up 15 times, more than any other Bulldog.
“They [the Huskies] were able to contest every shot we shot,” Mack said. “I just give them all the credit in the world.
Despite his poor play, Howard was proud of his team’s run during the past two years.
“You know, this group has obviously been able to do something that, you know, we’ve never done before. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of this and be a part of this class, you know, just a part of this whole team,” he said. “It’s really hard to put that into words right now ’cause, you know, we wanted a little bit more. But, you know, maybe at some point I can look back and be proud of what this group has accomplished.”
Last year Butler nearly defeated Duke in an instant classic, but that game is pushed back in the memories of the Bulldogs.
“Last year really doesn’t matter to us right now, Mack said. “We all upset about the game tonight. It’s very frustrating when you have your chances and your opportunities and you just let them slip away, just not being solid. The ball just wasn’t falling in.”
This season’s Butler had been on a 14-game winning streak and Stevens was surprised at the way his team played.
“I think you can talk about shooting in terms of resiliency, but I think we talk about 10 or 15 other things before that in terms of resiliency,” he said. Sometimes shots don’t go in, and that’s basketball. But, again, I don’t want to say shots just didn’t go in. UConn had a lot to do with that. So, again, the least of a coach’s concern is whether or not shots go in; it’s how you’re acting, how you’re operating, how you’re screening, how you’re getting to the point where your shot is taken.”
You wonder how long the ‘Cinderella’ tag can be applied to Butler, since this was their second consecutive appearance in the championship game. Once again, the clock struck midnight at the Big Dance.