published Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Wiedmer: Huskies’ defense wins out

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    Connecticut players from left, Benjamin Stewart, Tyler Olander, Kyle Bailey and Kemba Walker celebrate after beating Butler 53-41 at the men's NCAA Final Four college basketball championship game Monday, April 4, 2011, in Houston.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

HOUSTON — The first shot Butler star guard Shelvin Mack launched Monday night was rudely swatted away by Connecticut freshman Jeremy Lamb. A few seconds later, Huskies star guard Kemba Walker suffered a similarly embarrassing moment, his shot clanging against the side of the backboard.

From the very beginning, there was nothing going to be pretty or easy about winning this NCAA championship game. College basketball’s beauty had gone to the dogs, and they couldn’t have been happier about it.

As Mack had said upon reaching this Final Four last week, “It’s a physical game. That’s what the NCAA tournament is all about. You wouldn’t want it any other way.”

But by the time UConn had won 53-41 to hand 68-year-old Jim Calhoun his third national championship in 13 seasons — the fifth men’s coach with three — Butler would have wanted it to end any other way.

Unlike last season’s two-point loss to Duke in the title game, this one wasn’t close from the moment the Huskies grabbed the lead for good at 26-25 roughly four minutes into the second half.

From that point forward, Butler could do no right. The Bulldogs hit just 6 of 37 shots in the final half — only 3 of 31 inside the 3-point line for the game — and finished with a national championship game worst 18.8 percent from the floor.

“We knew all along we could defend them,” Calhoun said from the victory podium. “But my halftime speech was rather interesting. I’m glad you didn’t have your CBS cameras in there.”

The first half had ended rather interestingly for the Bulldogs. Despite hitting just 22 percent from the floor (6 of 27), they were leading 22-19 thanks to a last-second 3-pointer from Mack.

At that moment, most of the 70,376 inside Reliant Stadium rose to their feet, since almost everyone in the giant structure not specifically pulling for UConn was rooting hard for the Bulldogs.

But nobody wins five games in five days to capture the Big East tournament, then follows that with four more wins over 14 more days without being able to block out a few loud fans.

So after the Huskies spotted the Bullldogs a 25-19 lead a few seconds into the second half, they then scored the next seven points and 12 of the next 16 to lead 31-26 with 13:31 to play.

Much as they had against Kentucky in Saturday’s semifinal, UConn wasn’t letting Butler breathe near the basket. They officially had four blocks at intermission, but the Huskies had altered at least twice that many. By game’s end, they were credited with 10 blocks, which no one in Butler Blue would have dared argue.

“The major adjustment was that we were going to outwill them and outwork them, and we eventually outplayed them,” Calhoun said.

And how.

Though the Bulldogs were occasionally able to strike from afar in the final half, they never really made it close in the final 10 minutes. Unlike that other Hoosier State team — the Notre Dame women — Butler beating this UConn opponent wasn’t in the cards.

And that’s what usually does in mid-major teams, even those as gifted as Butler. They just can’t match a high major power like Connecticut in the paint, where it’s always a physical game, NCAA tournament or not.

“That’s the greatest thing about this team. We never get rattled,” said center Alex Oriakhi, who had four of the Huskies’ 10 blocks, scored 11 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.

“We just keep playing basketball, we stick together, and that’s what’s important.”

The greatest thing about this team has long been guard Walker, voted the most outstanding player after scoring a game-high 16 points.

“I can’t even talk right now,” he said. “You see the tears on my face. I have so much joy in me. It’s unreal. It’s surreal. This is a dream come true.”

It was a nightmare come true for Butler, as well as so many basketball fans throughout the country who long to see the little guy win one of these things.

“Sometimes the shots just don’t go in,” said losing coach Brad Stevens. “That’s basketball. But UConn also had a lot to do with that.”

That’s what the NCAA tournament is often about. Whether you’d want it any other way or not.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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