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Saturday July 24th, 2021 8:50PM

Ugly but sweet: UConn claims NCAA crown

By staff reports
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HOUSTON -- 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 Monday night with an old-fashioned, grinding 53-41 beatdown of the Bulldogs.

Walker finished with 16 points for the Huskies (32-9), who won their 11th straight 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 a 12-for-64 shooting. That's 18.8 percent, the worst ever in a title game, which made for an ugly overall night but turned into 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 joined John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as only the fifth coach to win three NCAA titles.

"It may be the happiest moment of my life," Calhoun said.

Calhoun designed this win by accepting the reality that the rim was about as wide as a pancake on a defensive-minded night in Houston, 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.

"The halftime speech was rather interesting," Calhoun said. "The adjustment was we were going to out-will them and outwork them."

Connecticut outscored Butler by an amazing 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 halfcourt 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.

The version of "Hoosiers" with the happy ending is still available on DVD.

UConn, meanwhile, gets the real celebration.

Joining Walker 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 blocks, 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.

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.

It's been a rough year for the Huskies and their coaching lifer, whose season was tarnished by an NCAA investigation that found Calhoun failed to create an atmosphere of compliance in the program. He admitted he wasn't perfect and has begrudgingly accepted the three-game suspension he'll have to serve when the Big East regular season starts next year.

Then again, given this performance, it's clear UConn does its best work when it's all-or-nothing, one-and-done.

Counting three wins at the Maui Invitational, Connecticut finished 14-0 in tournament games this year - including an unprecedented five-wins-in-five-nights success at the Big East tournament, then six games - two each week - in the one that really counts, one of the most unpredictable versions of March Madness ever.

It closed with 11th-seeded VCU in the Final Four and with eighth-seeded Butler joining the 1985 Villanova team as the highest seed to play in a championship game.

Villanova won that game by taking the air out of the ball and upsetting Georgetown.

Butler tried to do it in a most un-Butler way - by running a little and jacking up 3s.

Didn't work, and when the Bulldogs tried later to make baskets in the paint, it really looked like there was a lid there. During their dry spell, Howard, Garrett Butcher and Andrew Smith all missed open shots from under the bucket. It just wasn't their day.
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