UConn claws its way to surprise title
HOUSTON – About an hour before he climbed a ladder to take celebratory snips at the Reliant Stadium net, Kemba Walker stood in the middle of the Connecticut locker room, shouting at his teammates.
The Huskies had just contributed to one of the ugliest first halves in NCAA title game history and, frankly, Walker was embarrassed.
“This is not UConn basketball!” the All-American guard screamed. “This is not UConn basketball!”
Apparently, Walker’s fiery speech had an effect.
Connecticut spent the final half of the 2010-11 college basketball season reminding the world of the traits that have defined the Huskies’ program for so many years. Scrapping, battling, clawing – and finding a way.
As the horn sounded and confetti danced from the rafters, Connecticut began to celebrate a 53-41 victory over Butler than mirrored its entire season. Just when Calhoun’s squad appeared all but dead, the Huskies rose up and flourished in the face of adversity.
Connecticut trailed 25-19 early in the second half before ratcheting up its defense during a 25-5 march that sealed Butler’s fate. The win marked the Huskies’ third NCAA title under Calhoun, whose team lost four of its final five regular season games and finished ninth in the Big East.
“In the beginning of the season,” forward Alex Oriakhi said, “we were hearing a lot of negativity. ‘We’re too young … all we have is Kemba Walker … no true post presence.’ I’m happy all the hard work has paid off and we were able to prove people wrong.”
At 68, Calhoun is now the oldest coach to win an NCAA basketball title. Monday’s victory had to be especially gratifying for the Hall-of-Famer. Along with winning the championship during a season in which his program was found guilty of major rules violations, Calhoun managed to snare another trophy with what was far from one of his best teams in terms of experience and overall talent.
Walker was a national player of the year candidate, but otherwise Connecticut counts four freshmen among its top seven players. All season, the book on the Huskies was that they would only go as far as Walker would take them, that the team was mainly comprised of also-rans and scrubs.
Fitting, then, that Monday’s victory came despite a 5-of-19 shooting effort from Walker, who had zero assists. Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb combined for 23 points and 18 rebounds.
“Everyone chipped in,” Walker said. “It wasn’t just me. I struggled. I was terrible. I needed them to step up. It was perfect timing.”
It also didn’t hurt that Butler turned in the worst shooting performance in NCAA title game history. The Bulldogs – who lost to Duke in last year’s championship – connected on just 18.8 percent of their field goal attempts and noticeably lost their poise.
Part of that may have been because Brad Stevens’ squad was physically-overmatched. But Connecticut’s defense also played a big part in Butler’s offensive woes. How bad were the Bulldogs? Well, Calhoun’s team shot a miserable 34.5 percent from the field and still won by 12 points.
“Butler gave us everything we could handle,” Calhoun said. “We were up 10 points and it still seemed like we were up 1.”
Connecticut, though, found a way to be resilient, just as it has time and time again throughout the last month.
Monday’s win capped an amazing 11-game stretch that began with five victories in five days at the Big East tournament and ended with players wearing “UConn No. 1” hats and T-shirts while hoisting the championship trophy before 70,376 fans at Reliant Stadium.
Before the net-cutting ceremonies began, Walker approached Calhoun and gave his coach and mentor a long, heartfelt hug.
“I wasn’t saying anything,” Walker said. “I was crying.”
Emotional as the moment was for Walker, it was even more meaningful to Calhoun, who became just the fifth coach in NCAA history to win at least three NCAA basketball titles. The others in the club are John Wooden (11 championships), Adolph Rupp (four), Mike Krzyzewski (four) and Bob Knight (three).
Still, Calhoun’s legacy will be forever tarnished by the NCAA recruiting violations. The NCAA announced earlier this year that Calhoun will be suspended for the first three games of next season.
The question is whether Calhoun will be around to absorb the penalty.
After Monday’s victory there was speculation that Calhoun may decide to retire while he’s on top, his last victory that throttling of Butler on college basketball’s biggest stage. This season was Calhoun’s 39th as a Division I head coach.
“I would love for Coach [Calhoun] to coach us next year,” Lamb said. “Whatever happens happens. What we did this year, nobody can ever take it from us. It feels great.”
Calhoun was non-committal about his plans for the future.
“It’s going to be about what I feel passionately,” he said. “Can I give the kids everything humanly possible that I can? If I can, I’ll coach as long as I can keep doing it. If I decide that I can’t, I’ll move on to something else, because I do have an incredible life with my family and friends and other things that I do.”
Former players such as Rip Hamilton, Donyell Marshall, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Hasheem Thabeet spilled onto the court to celebrate with the Huskies. All of them, Calhoun said, have a special place in his heart. Just like this year’s Huskies.
“I needed this team,” said Calhoun, whose squad missed the NCAA tournament last season. “Coaches rarely say that, but I needed this team.
“The gift of trust, the gift of faith they had in me – and their inability to give in … that’s why I got into coaching 40-some years ago when I became a high school teacher and coach. I couldn’t ask for a better gift. It reaffirms everything I’ve done in my profession.
“The sweetness of it? It’s very sweet.”