Someone had to win this dog fight, and after 40 minutes Connecticut showed its teeth.
Then again, it’s not that the Huskies shot well from the floor. Rather, it was that Butler had the worst-ever shooting performance in the history of the NCAA men’s championship game.
And therein lies why the Huskies came away with their recent 53-41 victory at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas, and captured the school’s third basketball title under Head Coach Jim Calhoun.
How’s this for shooting? At the half, the Bulldogs and Huskies combined to make 26 percent from the field. Butler connected on 22 percent (six of 27), and still led 22-19.
Butler was outrebounded by nine at the half, and Connecticut had 14 points in the paint, compared to none for the Bulldogs, who came up two points shy to heavily-favored Duke a year ago in the same game.
“I love to coach and I love this team,’’ said Calhoun. “In the second half we willed our way to the win.”
In front of 70,376 fans, Butler made 18.8 percent from the field (12 of 64), and missed six of 14 free throws. Butler (28-10) converted nine of 33 from the three-point line.
Connecticut freshman shooting guard Jeremy Lamb couldn’t locate the hoop in the first half, but took over in the second half by scoring 12 points.
Junior point guard Kemba Walker was the game’s high scorer with 16 points, and voted the Most Outstanding Player.
“This is a great win for us,’’ said Walker, who hit five of 19 from the floor, pulled down nine rebounds, and will likely make himself eligible for the June NBA draft.
The Huskies placed ninth in the Big East regular-season standings, and sank 19 of 55 shots (34.5 percent), 14 of 16 from the charity line, and outrebounded the Bulldogs, 53-41.
Connecticut (32-9) outscored Butler 8-3 over the first four minutes and six seconds of the second half and led 27-25. It became 31-26 with 13:31 showing when Lamb (four of eight and seven rebounds) stole the ball and jammed it as Butler called time out.
“It was frustrating,’’ said Brad Stevens, the Butler Head Coach. “They were the best close-out team we’ve played. They contested every shot. At the end we took some chances. We gambled and trapped, and they made some easy baskets.”
The Huskies increased their lead to 39-28 with 10:05 left, and Connecticut was in front 43-30 with 5:49 left on the clock.
Butler has made a name for itself by appearing in the last two title matches, and there was real talk it had a legitimate chance of winning because of senior power forward Matt Howard (seven points with six rebounds) and junior shooting guard Shelvin Mack (13 points and nine caroms).
The two finished by hitting five of 28 shots, hardly enough to defeat an average team, let alone the Huskies, who came in having won 10 straight after taking five games in five days in the Big East Tournament.
The Huskies led 4-3 with 15:58 left and 13-9 four minutes later. The Bulldogs showed grit and went on a 7-2 blitz to pull ahead 16-15 with 6:44 left.
With 3:49 remaining it was knotted at 19-19, until Mack (four of 15) canned a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.