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Houston gets the worst NCAA Championship in history: All clangs & a cheater's win, but city shines

Houston gets the worst NCAA Championship in history: All clangs & a cheater's win, but city shines

Kemba Walker net
Kemba Walker and UConn got to cut down the nets at Reliant Stadium. But no one who watched this game felt like dancing. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
George Mikan
UConn 53, Butler 41 brought up visions of black and white basketball — when scoring was almost considered illegal.
Final Four floor logo
Houston still stood tall as a host city. Photo by United Services
Jeremy Lamb
And a freshman named Jeremy Lamb was the best player on the floor.
Kemba Walker net
George Mikan
Final Four floor logo
Jeremy Lamb

A few streaks of blood are visible on Kemba Walker's white UConn shorts as he sits on a cushioned table in his team's locker room. Walker wears the UConn No. 1 hat that's part of a national championship team's swag, but he looks more like a battered man who's finally found relief rather than an elated, giddy sports hero.

And anyone who watched this game — either in Reliant Stadium or at home — looks and feels even worse.

America had to sit through it — and we didn't even get a hat.

UConn 53, Butler 41. Forty one? Can Houston get a recount?

If this is what a real Cinderella looks like in a national championship game, let's hope that another one never gets there. Let's face it. Houston put on a great Final Four and got a miserable turd of a title game.

It happens. It is nobody's fault. But that doesn't make it any easier to stomach. Or to stare at. This game should have carried a PG-68 rating. For anyone younger than UConn coach Jim Calhoun who watched it is in danger of never tuning into another basketball game again.

One of the greatest, most exhilarating NCAA Tournaments ever sped along delivering thrills at lightning speed ... until it arrived in Houston and crashed off a cliff. How did the Final Four morph into the Big Ten Tournament before Bayou City eyes?

"You can't control the ball when it goes out of your hand," UConn freshman Jeremy Lamb says. "Sometimes it just doesn't drop. Sometimes it doesn't bounce your way. You can't control the ball when it leaves your hand."

Actually, you are supposed to be able to control it. That's why shooting is considered a skill. But forgive Lamb for this touch of nonsense. He just watched his team shoot 34.5 percent in a national championship game and win — going away.

UConn makes only 10 of its 24 shots in the second half, yet it feels like the Huskies are rolling, on top of the world.

"I just knew," Walker says. "I just had the feeling. This game was ours."

It's hard not to feel that way when the other team shoots 22.2 percent in the first half — and then gets worse. Butler goes 6-for-37 in the final 20 minutes of this college basketball season, with a title on the line. George Mikan would be offended by that. UConn recorded the lowest point total for a winning NCAA Championship team since 1949.

No wonder why Bill Walton looks so confused for most of the night at Reliant, with the former UCLA great popping in and out of doors in the stadium's cavernous tunnels. Walton is probably trying to find some real basketball.

They shouldn't have dropped all that red, white and blue confetti from the rafters when it was all over. They should have sent down caffeine pills — to wake everyone up.

No Repeat

Remember how haunted Butler was supposed to be by the tape of last year's so-close 61-59 loss to Duke in the national title game? How the Bulldogs either couldn't bring themselves to watch the tape or couldn't stop watching it, hoping that Gordon Hayward's heave at the buzzer would somehow fall instead?

Well, there will be no such dilemma with this game tape.

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has requested it — so it can burn it and insure no one who isn't already scarred ever sees it.

Butler forward Matt Howard would be more than down with that plan. Howard came into this night on one of those magical March runs. He's been making the winning plays, getting a handshake from George Bush, seeing his NBA stock rise and rise.

Then, he shows up on Monday night and shoots 1-for-13. One for 13? Those are John Starks numbers, worthy of that famous horrific Game 7 against the Houston Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals.

And Howard is a post player, not a guard.

"Hopefully (the NBA scouts) didn't watch too much of tonight's game," Howard deadpans.

Give the kid some credit. At least, he has a sense of humor about it. Matt Howard could qualify as an honorary Houstonian.

For that's what Houston does. It turns clangs into sweetness, unwatchable into "How may I help you?"

The worst NCAA Championship Game in history — yes ever, go on and look right down the list of 73 and just try and top this horror —  is hoisted on Houston, but everyone here just tries to make sure all those visitors are having a good time. Houston's nothing if not ever welcoming.

The Saturday night semifinals, while close, weren't great games either. Of course, after Monday night, they look like masterpieces. It's hard to imagine another Final Four this bad on the court. Or this good off it.

For when it's all over — when the NCAA bigwigs have to hand the trophy to a coach they've already suspended for three games next year for a recruiting violations story that's only growing uglier — NCAA president Mark Emmert is still all smiles.

"The entire NCAA is so proud of what Houston's done here," Emmert beams.

Lamb Over Lions

Best case? The Houstonians who attended this game — and Texans are largely responsible for the overall Final Four attendance record set at Reliant (145,797 in the two nights, including another 70,000 Monday) — will get to tell their friends that they saw the game where Jeremy Lamb introduced himself to the basketball world.

It's sacrilegious to compare anything to Michael Jordan hitting that jumper for North Carolina in 1982. But remember no one knew who Jordan was back then either. No one's saying Lamb is going to be Jordan, but his game Monday just feels like the start of something.

The all-long-arms and legs, 18-year-old is the best player in the floor on the biggest stage. Lamb hasn't come close to filling out his 6-foot-5 frame yet, but he already has a 7-foot-4 wingspan. One that left many of the Bulldogs wondering if they hadn't been attacked by a pterodactyl.

"I think Lamb's length surprised us a little," Butler coach Brad Stevens says. "You can see it on tape, but it's not the same as seeing it live. He makes up so much ground."

Just when Butler thinks it has an open look or an open lane, Lamb bursts in, flicking away a shot, bothering a good handful more, stepping in from nowhere to make the biggest steal of the game.

Calhoun screams at Lamb for playing "timid" in a scoreless first half (for Lamb, not both teams — it only seemed like that). So the freshmen runs off 12 points in the second half, adds seven rebounds and one spooked team for good measure. Particularly shaken is Butler star guard Shelvin Mack. The Bulldogs' best player ends up missing 11 of his 15 shots.

"It's my length man." Lamb laughs. "It just gets to people. Guys think I'm too far away to contest their shot ... Well, I can contest it. I can get there."

Houston got there for this Final Four too. In every way that counts.

But when it comes back around in 2016? Hey, we're owed some good games.