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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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Soaring: Connecticut's Kemba Walker goes up for a shot against Butler in the NCAA championship game on Monday night at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Connecticut won 53-41. AP PHOTO

UConn captures NCAA title

HOUSTON (AP) The rims were tight, the shots weren't falling and points were at a premium — surely one of the ugliest championships played on college basketball's biggest stage.

Ah, but for Kemba Walker and UConn, the final score was a thing of beauty.

In a game that featured 40 minutes of guts and grit, Connecticut made Butler look like the underdog it really was, winning the NCAA men's title Monday night with an old-fashioned, grinding 53-41 beatdown of the Bulldogs.

Walker finished with 16 points for the Huskies (32-9), whose amazing late-season streak could be stopped only by the final buzzer. They won their 11th straight game since closing the regular season with a 9-9 Big East record that foreshadowed none of this.

"Every time we play hard, great things always happen to us," Walker said.

It happened again.

They won the title with a defensive showing for the ages, holding Butler to 12-for-64 shooting. That's 18.8 percent, the worst ever in a title game.

It was short on aesthetics but full of tough-nosed defense; an old-school game, the kind of game a coaching lifer such as Jim Calhoun could love.

"Butler really plays defense," Calhoun said. "I mean, they really play defense. And we really play defense, and I think eventually our quickness and length got to them, but from a purist standpoint, if you really like defense, take a clip of this game."

At age 68, he became the oldest coach to win the NCAA championship. He won his third title since 1999 and joined John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as only the fifth coach to get to the top three or more times.

He did it to close out a season marked by losing streaks, mistakes made by a young, growing roster and sullied by an NCAA scandal that wrapped up with the embarrassing conclusion that the coach failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

Just like the last game, none of this was easy, but the Huskies kept overcoming.

"They truly were brothers, they truly were trusting in each other, and that was very, very special," Calhoun said. "This group has taken me on a very special journey, better than I could possibly imagine."

Calhoun coaxed this win out of his team by accepting the reality that the rims were rejecting shots and looked about as wide as a pancake on a cold-shooting, defensive-minded night in cavernous Reliant Stadium.

He did it by making his players pound the ball inside and insisting on the kind of defense that UConn played during this remarkable run, but which often got overshadowed by Walker's theatrics.

"So you need to understand that defense is going to take you and hold you in the game until your offense gets going, and that's what I think happened tonight," Calhoun said.

UConn trailed 22-19 after a first half that came straight out of the '40s.

"The halftime speech was rather interesting," Calhoun said. "The adjustment was, we were going to out-will them and outwork them."

And so they did.

Connecticut outscored Butler by an unthinkable 26-2 in the paint. The Bulldogs (28-10), in their second straight title game and hoping to put the closing chapter on the ultimate "Hoosiers" story, went a mind-numbing 13 minutes, 26 seconds in the second half making only one field goal.

During that time, a 25-19 lead turned into a 41-28 deficit. This for a team that never trailed Duke by more than six during last year's epic final.

"In my opinion, this one feels a little worse," said Butler guard Ronald Nored. "Last year I was more shocked. This year is pretty tough."

"You see the tears on my face," Walker said. "I have so much joy in me, it's unreal. It's surreal. I'm so happy right now."

Joining Walker, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, in double figures were Jeremy Lamb with 12 points, including six during UConn's pullaway run, and Alex Oriakhi with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Butler's 41 points were 10 points fewer than the worst showing in the shot-clock era in a championship game.



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