HOUSTON -- The ball is in the air again for Butler as the final seconds tick away in a championship game. Only, of course, nothing is the same at all. A year ago, the ball was in the air -- Butler's Gordon Hayward had pushed the basketball toward the basket from 45 feet away in the desperate last second -- and the ball seemed to stay suspended for way too long, like a balloon slowly losing its helium. If the ball bounced away, like long shots mostly do, Duke would win a great game and become national champion. But if it went in (and it looked like it might go in!), Butler would beat Duke in perhaps the most thrilling college game ever played.
That ball, suspended in air, was pumped with possibility.
This ball, shot by Butler's marvelous senior Matt Howard, has no chance at all. It is a shot filled with dread. He sends it up toward the basket with something less than blind hope, and it really does not matter if it goes in. Connecticut wins either way. Connecticut wins the national title in a game that inspires more groans than cheers, more fouls than made baskets, more blocked shots than three-pointers.
This is Jim Calhoun's third national championship, which makes him one of one of only five -- John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Calhoun -- to win more than two in a career. This is a remarkable achievement by Connecticut's star Kemba Walker, who led a team with three freshman starters, who often carried this team the way Danny Manning once carried Kansas, the way Magic Johnson once carried Michigan State. Nobody should detract from Connecticut's brilliant run, from 18-16 a year ago, to unranked team at the start of this year, to a ninth-place finish in the Big East, to winner of five games in five days in the Big East tournament, to national champion.
Still ... when the game ends Monday night, fans walk by each other and grimace or shrug. Nobody seems quite certain how to react. The game was often painful. The two teams missed almost 100 shots on the night, if you count missed free throws. At one point in the second half, Butler missed 13 shots in a row. At one point in the second half, Butler was 1-for-20 on two-point shots.
When good basketball players, no matter what level, shoot a ball they expect it to go in. This is the most natural part of the game for them. They have been shooting balls at baskets much of the lives -- in driveways, in parks, in YMCAs, in high school gymnasiums. They have seen the ball go in hundreds of thousands of times. One of my favorite people, Jackie Stiles, grew up in a little town in Kansas called Claflin, and every single day she would make a thousand shots. She would not SHOOT a thousand shots, no. She would make a thousand. When you make a thousand shots a day, you make more than 350,000 shots a year, you make a million shots every three years, and made shots become part of your soul. When she was in college, Stiles almost singlehandedly led the school then called Southwest Missouri State to the women's Final Four. She knew, in a way she could never put into words, that when she shot the basketball it was going in.
Well, all really good players are like that. They all know the ball is going in. Butler's Matt Howard is like that. There's no telling how many millions of shots he has taken. He expects the ball to go in. His teammates -- like Shelvin Mack and Chase Stigall and the rest -- expect the ball to go in. And so, Monday night made no sense to them whatsoever. It made no sense to anybody. The first half was an absurdity. Butler made just 22 percent of its shots ... and the Bulldogs were WINNING by three at halftime. The score, 22-19, was like something out of time, as if a cobbler had shown up or the cheerleaders just started dancing the Charleston.
There were probably reasons for that awkward first half. For one thing, both teams do play ferocious defense. Butler has become famous for it, and Connecticut turned its season around based on a new energy and focus on defense. "We thought the way to disguise our youth was to get better on defense every day," Calhoun said. "Down the stretch, we would take literally fifty percent of practice on nothing but defense."
For another thing, the game was played in a dome, and while people kept tying to say that this dome in Houston was a "good shooting dome" -- whatever that means -- the truth is that no team shot particularly well in any of the three games. Maybe, as Calhoun said, the rims were just a little tighter. Maybe the shooting angles were deceiving, and the background was too vast to fit the eye, and the raised floor felt unfamiliar and a little unsteady.
For a third thing ... everybody looked a bit nervous. Well, hey, it was the national championship game. Even Walker looked nervous. He missed a couple of shots early and started raising his right arm and flexing his wrist, the universal symbol for "How the heck did I miss that?"
Anyway, the first half ended, and everybody went into the locker room, coaches did a little yelling, and everything figured to settle down in the second half. It did settle down a bit for Connecticut.
Only for Butler, it did not settle down. The opposite. Stigall made a three-pointer on the Bulldogs' first possession to give them a six-point lead. And Butler then missed 22 of its next 23 shots. I've never seen anything quite like it. Yes, Connecticut's defense was intense. The Huskies blocked 10 shots during the game, and it seemed like they ALMOST blocked another 10. Their length -- especially the length of Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi -- left the Butler players gasping for air. They often could not get the ball to the basket.
But some of those 23 shots were very good looks, too. And they missed them plainly and badly. "I think what happens in a game like that," Butler coach Brad Stevens said, "is they guard you so well, when you start to get a few open ones, you know, you're not feeling comfortable." Stevens knows this -- he has seen it happen to other teams. Just Saturday, his team defensively clamped down on VCU. And VCU was so on edge, that its players must have missed seven or eight open layups.
On Monday, the Butler players kept encouraging each other to keep shooting. They knew this couldn't last for long. The slump will end. The shots will start dropping. The game was still in play throughout the 22 of 23 misses. Connecticut missed a lot, too. Walker was 5-for-19 in the game. Howard said: "We kept telling each other, 'Shots are going to go in. Keep shooting. Keep shooting the shots you do. It's going to be fine.' "
Only it wasn't fine. It never became fine. The shots never did start dropping for Butler. Connecticut built its lead to seven ... then nine ... then 11 ... and then the Bulldogs had to get desperate, try a more aggressive defense, and that had no chance of working against the quicker Huskies with their great guards. With about five minutes left, Connecticut led by 14 -- which in this kind of game was like leading by 50.
Sure, it was a horrible and painful way for the run to end for Butler.
In many ways, this was the opposite of the
The final shot is the one that stays with me -- the game is already decided, Connecticut players are already beginning their celebration, and Butler is trying to score because that's what you do when the clock is still ticking. Howard misses a three-point shot. There is nobody in college basketball quite like Matt Howard -- a first-team Academic All-American (second year in a row), a team leader, a member of his league's all-defensive team, a member of his league's all-conference team, a member of his league's all-tournament team four years in a row. "Matt never took a day off in four years," Stevens would say after the game ended, and though Stevens was clearly trying to keep it together this was the one time his voice cracked.
"6 a.m. practice after 6 a.m. practice, that kid never took one day off."
Butler manages to get the rebound, the ball is kicked out to Hahn, a very good shooter, and he misses a three pointer. The clock is down to 10 seconds. The confetti machine is warming up. Howard fights and gets the ball back. And he takes the shot, the last shot of the game, the last shot of his college career. The ball is in the air. Is it too much to ask that this one time, on this harsh night, the ball goes in?
Is that really too much to ask?
On this night, yes, it is too much to ask. The ball misses just like all the rest. Connecticut grabs the rebound, throws the ball up in the air, and its players celebrate their glorious season. "We're the best team in America," Walker said. Butler's players cry. Matt Howard tells everyone he let his team down. The ball didn't go in. The ball just would not go in.