Hoops City
Power Play

UConn shows NBA-level talent, not dreams, wins national titles

UConn shows NBA-level talent, not dreams, wins national titles

Butler UConn basket
Butler and UConn battled for the national championship at Reliant Stadium. Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker missed his first five shots in the national championship game.
Brad Stevens
Butler coach Brad Stevens had his team believing — and fighting.
Butler UConn basket
Kemba Walker
Brad Stevens

In the end, it's about talent. It's not about power conference or mid-major, giant or Cinderella, Goliath or David.

It's how many upper level NBA prospects are on your roster. UConn coach Jim Calhoun counted on this all along, knew he didn't just have a Kemba, but a young Lamb as well. Not to mention the type of big-man depth that Butler simply cannot counter.

So Houston's Final Four ends with UConn overpowering Butler 53-41 in an anti-climatic national championship game. An NCAA Tournament that featured 20 games that were decided by three points or less — or in overtime — turned into a second-half UConn talent overpowering.

With the Huskies' sure NBA star Kemba Walker (16 points, nine rebounds) getting plenty of help from UConn's next one, freshman Jeremy Lamb, and a big man who could earn his own pro time, the Final Four turned into a talent lesson rather than a feel-good tale.

On a night when Walker struggled with his shot (5 for 19), the 6-foot-5, long, lean Lamb scored all 12 of his points in the second half and Alex Oriakhi (11 points) helped control the inside.

Butler (28-10) had enough heart. It simply didn't have enough high-level talent. It's one certain NBA player — guard Shelvin Mack — shot 4-for-15. Its other star — forward Matt Howard, the guy who got the handshake with George Bush at the NCAA Salute on Thursday night — missed 12 of his 13 shots.

Butler shot 18 percent as a team. Eighteen percent. The lowest in NCAA title game history.

It played out in front of 70,376 at Reliant Stadium (about 5,000 less than Saturday night's Final Four record crowd), with George and Barbara Bush back in attendance cheering for Butler, with LeAnn Rimes singing the national anthem, with Bill Walton, one of the greatest college basketball players ever, wandering around the tunnels of the stadium.

A big-time night. On a big-time stage. For a big-time champion.

"It's so special," said Calhoun, who became the oldest coach (68) to ever win the NCAA championship. "These group of kids have given me the type of year that every coach should have at least once."

UConn's fabulous freshman Lamb — who emerged late in the season as Walker's most reliable sidekick — scored nine points in the first eight minutes of the second half after putting up a zero in the first 20 minutes. UConn coach Jim Calhoun likes to call Lamb "The Next". As in when Walker leaves for the NBA after this season, Lamb will be UConn's next great player.

On this night, Lamb would go about making Butler wait until next year. Again.

Butler resisted labels like underdog, Cinderella, little team and even mid-major all year. Instead, Brad Stevens' bunch wanted to be thought of as a team on a mission, one determined to take the next step after losing in the national championship game to Duke in 2010.

No matter how few people believed the Bulldogs could do it.

"It's all about unfinished business," Butler guard Shawn Vanzant said before the game.

UConn's been taking care of business all March. The Huskies (32-9) won five straight Big East tournament games to capture the title for what was supposed to be the toughest conference in the land. Then, they won five straight games in the NCAA Tournament to get to this night.

Their 11th straight win overall meant Calhoun has three national championships and everyone was wearing UConn No. 1 hats.

Butler threatened to streak right to a national championship. The Bulldogs had not lost since Feb. 3 — 14 straight wins heading into Monday night — but this was a streak filled with more close, clutch pull-outs than dominance.

And Brad Stevens' team couldn't match UConn's power on the night it mattered most.

The mammoth Reliant crowd clearly wanted to see another Butler win — and a little mid-major history. When Butler guard Chase Stigall hit Butler's first shot — a 3-pointer from the wing — the football stadium seemed louder than it had ever been in Saturday night's semifinals.

Walker missed his first five shots of the night. Both teams looked tight and tense on the national championship stage. Four minutes into the game, the score stood at 6-4.

With so much on the line, an artistic game wasn't in the picture. This would be a scrape and crawl for the trophy — above all, a fight.

Butler started 3 for 17 from the field (a pitiful 17.3 percent clip). UConn wasn't all that much better, but all that talk about Butler being the more experienced team on this national championship stage, about the Bulldogs carrying the power of last March's so-close title loss to Duke making a difference, seemed to be going up in clangs.

Then, Stigall pulled up and hit a 26-foot triple. Then, Shelvin Mack buried another 3-pointer in transition. But the biggest shot of the first half came when Mack hit another long three at the buzzer, putting the underdogs on a mission up by three points at the break.

Who needs pretty when you're winning?

But Butler soon found out that everyone needs talent.