Monday, April 4, 2011
Rapid Reaction: UConn 53, Butler 41
By Eamonn Brennan
Jeremy Lamb led UConn in the second half -- getting 12 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists.
HOUSTON -- Two years. Two storybook runs to the national title game. Two brutal, demoralizing finishes.
Butler's first run at glory ended with a just-this-close heave from Gordon Hayward. Instead, Duke took the title. This year, Butler's second chance at history was ruined by a score of misses -- 52 of them, to be exact -- as the Bulldogs shot themselves out of the mid-major record books and into the wrong kind of historical company in debilitating fashion.
The Bulldogs' epic flameout will be the story of this game, of course. Butler's tale of back-to-back Final Fours -- both of which brutally ended without a title -- is too good to fade to the background. You can't shoot the worst field goal percentage in NCAA championship game history (18.8 percent) -- the third-worst in NCAA tournament history -- and expect to avoid the spotlight.
But it'd be a disservice to Connecticut to ignore the Huskies' story, to treat them as some sort of boring champion-by-default. UConn might not have the underdog angle, but its is a tale of defiant redemption and the power of brilliant individual talent -- a tale of Jim Calhoun and Kemba Walker -- and what can be achieved when a coach and his players meld the two.
Connecticut wasn't its usually brilliant self on the offensive end. Rather, the Huskies won this title with defense. They locked down the Bulldogs in the half court -- Butler shot 12-of-64 from the field, 9-of-33 from the 3-point line and 3-of-31 on 2-point attempts -- and even when UConn didn't challenge Butler's shots (and it usually did), the Huskies' supreme athleticism irrevocably broke Butler's offensive rhythm.
Simply put, no matter how good your defense is, you can't shoot as badly as Butler did and expect to win a national championship. Not when Walker and these Huskies are on the other side. Not ever. The Bulldogs never shot the ball well, but their second half was a special exercise in offensive frustration. With 12:29 left in the second half, Butler still had made only one 2-point attempt, a first-half hook shot by forward Andrew Smith. That's when guard Shawn Vanzant found enough room on a baseline inbounds play to knock down a 15-foot jumper. But Vanzant's next attempt was swatted by UConn forward Roscoe Smith, and the Bulldogs were right back to square one -- unable to find any easy shots against a longer, stronger and more athletic UConn team. The Bulldogs finished with three (three!) 2-pointers -- no one else in title-game history has had fewer than nine -- and a grand total of two points in the paint (UConn had 26), and that's your game right there.
Understatement alert: Butler did not shoot the ball well. And, yes, much of that offensive impotence was self-inflicted. But the Bulldogs have been a very good offensive team for much of the season and all of the tournament, and very good offensive teams don't just stop scoring points for no reason. In other words, Connecticut's defense deserves much of the credit for making everything so difficult for the Bulldogs.
Walker was quiet for much of the second half, but with 10 minutes left, he did what Kemba Walker does. Cutting to the rim, he received a bounce pass from Jeremy Lamb and finished with a beautiful floating layup that softly nestled through the nylon and gave Connecticut an 11-point lead. This performance wasn't vintage Walker -- he finished with 16 points on 5-of-19 shooting from the field -- but this season was all his, and this national title cements his legacy as one of Calhoun's greatest players.
No Butler player will have to apologize to his teammates. Or all of them will. Either way, the poor shooting was evenly dispersed across every starter (Matt Howard was 1-of-13, Shelvin Mack was 4-of-15, Vanzant was 2-of-10, Chase Stigall was 3-of-11 and Andrew Smith was 2-of-9) and reserve (Zach Hahn, Ronald Nored and Chrishawn Hopkins combined to go 0-for-6). It was just ... bad.
Strangely enough, this felt like Butler's one big moment, the time when the real-life Hoosiers comparisons came true, the culminating moment of a tournament -- and possibly an era -- defined by the unlikely mid-majors that barnstormed the Final Four. Instead, one of hoops' modern powers used its superior athleticism and talent.
Instead, the Bulldogs shot their way out of history. Instead, even as Butler slowly becomes a national brand -- and its coach, Brad Stevens, becomes a household name -- on the floor, where the only thing that counts is the final score, the sport's entrenched powers still reign.