HOUSTON — One of the most memorable NCAA tournaments in recent memory got its storybook ending Monday night, only it didn’t involve a small school from Indiana, and it was not all that easy on the eyes.
Connecticut capped a remarkable 11-game postseason run with a 53-41 victory over Butler in a national title game that will be remembered for defensive stops, blocked shots and every one of the 88 missed field goal attempts. The sound that most resonated as the curtain fell on the season: the ball clanging off the rim, time and again.
“To me, that’s beauty,” Huskies Coach Jim Calhoun said of the defensive duel. “Damn, I loved it.”
As unsightly as it was, the outcome served as a crowing achievement for Calhoun, who won his third national title with what he says is the most resilient team he has ever coached. He joined John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Adolph Rupp as the only coaches with more than two titles. Calhoun, 68, also became the oldest coach ever to win the championship.
All season, the Huskies (32-9) were carried by all-American Kemba Walker, who was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player. But defense carried the Huskies in both Final Four games at Reliant Stadium.
Butler, which was trying to be the second No. 8 seed to win the title, saw its unlikely run end with as poor of a shooting effort as one could imagine on the sport’s largest stage. The good news was that the Bulldogs (28-10) shot 22.2 percent in the first half. The bad news was that they began the second half by making two of their first 24 field goal attempts.
“Tonight had a lot of frustrating moments because we could not score,” Butler Coach Brad Stevens said, adding later: “They guard you so well that when you get a few open ones you don’t feel comfortable.”
The Bulldogs shot 18.8 percent for the game, the worst performance from the field in NCAA title game history. They made 3 of 31 shots from two-point range, which was the worst performance from two-point range in any Division I game this season, according to analyst Ken Pomeroy.
The Huskies had their own offensive struggles in the first half of what was then a tight game. But the focus during timeouts, Calhoun said, remained defense. At halftime, Calhoun recalled, he and assistants told the team: “You’re too good for this. If they beat us, that’s fine. But we’re not playing full speed. We look awful on offense because we are walking into screens. If you play fast on defense, we’ll get faster on offense.”
U-Conn.’s offense came alive just enough in the second half to give the Huskies some separation. Freshman Jeremy Lamb, whose contributions during the tournament were invaluable for the Huskies, scored all 12 of his points in the second half. He said he missed a couple open shots in the first half and became timid.
“My teammates encouraged me, Coach got into me,” Lamb said. “Right out of the half, they ran a couple plays for me. All I want to see is the ball go into the net. Then I got my confidence back.”
Walker did not have his best night. The junior made only 5 of 19 field goal attempts and scored 16 points. But his acrobatic layup pushed the lead to 11 in the second half, forcing Stevens to call a timeout.
“If you were to tell me Walker and Lamb combine for 28 points,” Stevens said, “I would have felt pretty good.”
The game was played at the ideal tempo for Butler, which had won 31 of its last 32 games when allowing less than 60 points. The 41 total first-half points represented fewest combined points in a national title game since 1945.
The Bulldogs simply could not score.
Butler was a long shot to make a deep run in the tournament after Gordon Hayward, who missed the half-court heave that would have beaten Duke in last season’s national title game, left school early for the NBA. The Bulldogs were not even considered a likely NCAA tournament team two months ago, when it languished at 14-9 after three straight Horizon League losses.
But their run ended against a team that has also enjoyed an improbable season. The Huskies missed the NCAA tournament last season and began this season unranked. Their hopes of a deep NCAA tournament run appeared to fade after they lost four of their last five games of the regular season to finish in ninth place in the Big East.
But they have not lost since. They won five games in five days to win the Big East tournament title. They won six NCAA tournament games to give Calhoun his third national title since 1999.
This has been a trying time for Calhoun, whose best friend and sister-in-law died in the past year. He also endured a two-year NCAA investigation and will have to serve a three-game suspension because of recruiting violations next season.
“Coach Calhoun, he has been through a lot this year,” Walker said. “Deaths in his family. NCAA stuff. Everyone picking on us, of course. I think we helped him overcome everything. We won two of the biggest tournaments on the collegiate level. I think we made his year.”
After Walker spoke those words late Monday night, Calhoun gently patted the back of one of the best players in program history. A little later, well after a less-than-scintillating title game had concluded, Calhoun provided the last word:
“This is as sweet of a ride as I have ever gone on in my life.”