HOUSTON – So what did you think? Was Monday night’s battle for the national championship between Connecticut and Butler – won 53-41 by the Huskies – one of the worst-played games of such importance in sports history?
Neither team could make a shot in the first half. Butler still couldn’t hit the ocean from the pier in the second half but the Huskies could, and the result was UConn’s third national championship, all under 68-year-old head coach Jim Calhoun.
Yes, the Huskies did play solid defense in the second half. But good teams usually make a majority of their open shots and their share of contested shots. The Bulldogs did neither.
For a 13-minute period of the second half, it became absolutely excruciating to watch Butler try to make a shot from anywhere on the floor. The Bulldogs missed 23 of their first 25 tries in the half, going from six points up to 13 down.
For the game, they made a mere 18.8 percent of their field-goal attempts, lowest ever for an NCAA title game. But even more remarkable, they were three of 31 from inside the three-point arc.
“Certainly, it’s frustrating at the time,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “I think what happens in a game like this is they guard you so well that, when you start to get a few open looks, you‘re not feeling comfortable. We’ve done that to people at the other end. We’ve just never done it at that level.”
UConn was particularly intimidating inside against Butler’s 6-foot-8 Matt Howard and 6-11 Andrew Smith. Alex Oriakhi, who stands 6-9, along with 6-8 Roscoe Smith and 7-foot Charles Okwandu, made sure Butler knew they were nearby if they ventured into or near the paint.
Oriakhi and Smith each blocked four shots and Okwandu swatted one, but the trio altered numerous other attempts.
“I definitely think our length bothered them a lot,” Oriakhi said. “Any time they were able to drive into the lane, we tried to alter their shot or block it. That affected them the whole game.”
With Kemba Walker not having his A-game in terms of shooting (five of 19 from the field), Oriakhi and freshman Jeremy Lamb provided able assistance. Oriakhi scored 11 points – five of them coming on two key possessions down the stretch – and pulled down 11 rebounds while Lamb scored all 12 of his points in the second half.
The Huskies enjoyed an incredible stretch run after going 4-7 in their last 11 regular-season games and 1-4 in their last five, a finish that dropped them into a tie with Villanova and Marquette for ninth place in the Big East. They won five games in five days – the last four against ranked teams – to take the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, then went 6-0 in the NCAAs.
As a matter of fact, in posting a 32-9 record, UConn never lost to a team outside of the Big East, going 23-0, including a 14-0 record in tournaments if you add the Maui Invitational to the conference and NCAAs. That’s not bad when you consider this team did not receive a single vote in the AP pre-season poll and was selected to finish 10th in the Big East.
But with Walker elevating his game and his leadership and freshmen like Lamb, Smith and Shabazz Napier showing improvement throughout, the Huskies managed to kick it into another gear and turned into what Calhoun called his most satisfying season of his long career as a head coach.
“I needed this team,” said Calhoun, who had personal tragedy and the cloud of an NCAA investigation affect him. “Very rarely does a coach say that. But I needed this team every day for 109 practice sessions, for everybody involved. They truly were brothers. They truly were trusting of each other and very, very special.”
Walker, who will graduate next month after three years, likely will take his talents to the NBA. But seniors Okwandu and Donnell Beverly are the only members of the current rotation not coming back, so the Huskies should still be a factor in the Big East and nationally if they can somehow fill the leadership vacuum left by Walker’s departure.
As for Butler, many were convinced the Bulldogs would never be back after last year’s 61-59 title game loss to Duke, a contest that was as thrilling to watch and Monday night’s was dreadful. But with the bright and controlled Stevens in charge, you can’t make the same statement that they won’t be back. You just never know.
A list of the worsts from Monday night’s title game:
*The lowest field goal percentage (18.8 percent) ever.
*Third-lowest field goal percentage in any NCAA tournament game
*Twelve field goals are the second-worst (Oklahoma State made nine in the 1949 title game)
*First team to lose back-to-back championship games since Michigan in 1992 and 1993.
*Lowest point total by winning team since 1949 (Kentucky 46, Oklahoma State 36)
*Ties Duke (1990) for worst three-point shooting performance (each 1 for 11) in a championship game.
*Nineteen points in first half were lowest since California scored 19 versus Ohio State in 1960.