National Championship Game Recap - (3) Connecticut 53, (8) Butler 41> View all of our 2011 NCAA Tournament Coverage online at CollegeSports-Fans.com!
The Connecticut Huskies didn’t play their best game of the season, or even their best game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, on the Monday night all teams aspire to reach. However, the kids from New England didn’t have to operate at the height of their powers. They just needed to be better than the opponent on the other side of the court.
Given the way the Butler Bulldogs shot the ball in their second straight national championship game, it wasn’t overly hard to attain such a distinction.
Connecticut won the third national championship of the Jim Calhoun era on Monday at Reliant Stadium in Houston, taking down Butler in a contest that featured boundless energy, tireless intensity, ferocious defense… and a lot of missed shots. Teams generated decent looks at the basket on a fair number of possessions and committed very few turnovers – only 17 all told (11 for UConn, six for Butler) – but when the time came to finish plays, neither side could do so. Connecticut won not because it was so proficient at putting the ball through the basket, but because it didn’t engage in the endless parade of brick-laying the Bulldogs proceeded to produce.
Indeed, Connecticut did not play the kind of game it wanted to play. Butler, even in defeat, established the style and tempo it wanted. UConn hit just 34.5 percent of its shots and connected on just one three-pointer in 11 tries. Kemba Walker, the Huskies’ superstar and the best player on the floor, hit just 5 of 19 field-goal attempts and was really rather pedestrian in this contest. Shabazz Napier, seen as an important part of the Huskies’ offense before this game began, scored only four points. Jeremy Lamb scored a modest 12 points on a night when he was contained by Butler’s relentless and hounding pressure. It’s not a stretch at all to say that if you told Butler coach Brad Stevens that Connecticut would score 53 points, the 34-year-old whiz-kid would have loved his chances of taking home an historic national crown.
Instead, Butler lost by a double-digit margin and – to add perspective – the same score posted by another one of the worst Final Four games in the past 15 years, the 2000 national semifinal in which Michigan State beat Wisconsin, 53-41.
Yes, Butler lost by more than 10 points despite playing its customarily brilliant defense. This is because the Bulldogs, throughout their roster, could not hit the side of a barn. Oh, Butler generated several layup attempts and gained a free shooting hand on a number of its threes, but the boys in the dark jerseys simply couldn’t finish shots. It really was that simple. Connecticut’s length bothered Butler on a number of drives to the basket, but not all of them. Connecticut’s own defensive intensity challenged Butler on a number of perimeter shots, but not all of them. At some point, the Bulldogs – trying to bring a championship to the Horizon League and the ranks of mid-majors everywhere – simply felt too much pressure and were never able to attain a confident mindset on their jumpers. Shot after shot banged off the rim, usually long, and Connecticut – despite its inability to solve Butler’s defense – gradually gained separation on the scoreboard as the final six minutes of regulation time melted away. UConn didn’t run away and hide; the Huskies walked away in plain sight while Butler continued its masonry festival.
The final numbers were gruesome for a Butler team that amazed the college basketball world for a second straight March Madness run, only to come up short once again in the final drama of the NCAA Tournament. Butler hit 19 percent of its shots (12 of 64) and missed 24 threes in 33 attempts. Its bench scored a total of two points in 46 minutes of court time. Stars Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard hit a total of just five shots in 28 attempts. Guard Shawn Vanzant, who hit a dagger of a three in BU’s win over Virginia Commonwealth in Saturday’s national semifinals, went 2 for 10 from the floor and could not lift his teammates. Butler’s trademark virtues appeared in this game; the Bulldogs simply forgot to bring a 35-percent shooting touch with them. That percentage would have been good enough to claim this game.
Instead, though, Connecticut is the 2011 national champion of college basketball. The Huskies, down and out on March 5 after concluding their Big East regular season with a home loss to Notre Dame, changed course beginning on March 8 in the first round of the Big East Tournament. The four-week run which began that afternoon in New York – a 28-day span in which the Huskies won all 11 games they played – will go down as one of the very best four-week runs in college basketball history. Only the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack, who won the ACC Tournament and then the whole shebang in Albuquerque, can boast of a similar journey.
As March Madness began, most people thought Connecticut’s women’s team would win a national title. Instead, it’s the men who made sure that some hardware made a trip back to the Nutmeg State.
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