April 05, 2011

HOUSTON -- The visions came to Kemba Walker at some point during his historic comet-ride through college basketball's postseason. The Connecticut guard can't remember when they began, but he knows that by the time the Huskies arrived in Houston for the Final Four, he couldn't close his eyes without seeing them. Walker's mind had crafted a hoops fantasy slideshow. A ladder. Scissors. A net. His teammates standing on a stage, smiling and singing along to One Shining Moment.

On Monday, Walker and the Huskies made those visions reality. As UConn's band blasted DJ Khaled's All I Do Is Win and workers moved ladders under each basket, the Huskies swayed back and forth wearing caps emblazoned with No. 1. They had rolled to a 53-41 win against Butler, denying America its Cinderella story and placing controversial, curmudgeonly coach Jim Calhoun in the most select of company. In the process, Walker capped a historic postseason run, averaging 24.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and five assists and willing the Huskies to 11 consecutive postseason wins.

"As the season progressed, I definitely thought we had shot," said Walker, who led UConn with 16 points. "I knew we could be a special team. We definitely shocked the world and did something special."

The Huskies won their third national title, adding the 2011 trophy to the ones claimed in 1999 and 2004. Calhoun became only the fifth coach to lead his team to at least three national titles, joining former Indiana coach Bob Knight (three), Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (four), former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp (four) and former UCLA coach John Wooden (10).

At the start, neither team played as if it belonged in any conversation involving those Hall of Fame names, combining to miss 15 of their first 18 shots in the first four minutes; and the offense didn't get much better as the half wore on. UConn shot 29 percent from the field in the first half, while Butler shot 22.2 percent. The Bulldogs made only one of 13 shots from two-point range, but five three-pointers -- including one by Shelvin Mack as time expired -- allowed Butler to go into the half up 22-19. The 41 combined points were the fewest scored in a half in the NCAA title game since Oklahoma State and North Carolina totaled 40 in 1946.

The deficit didn't bother the Huskies. "We've been down that road before this whole tournament," said UConn forward Alex Oriakhi, who scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. "We've been down, and we never lose our composure. I think that's the greatest thing about this team. We never get rattled."

Butler goaded Oriakhi and guard Jeremy Lamb into first-half foul trouble, but with the 6-foot-9, 240-pound Oriakhi and Lamb -- who is 6-foot-5 but has a much longer wingspan -- back on the floor in the second, the Bulldogs struggled to find open looks. Butler missed 31 of 37 second-half shots. Mack led the Bulldogs -- last year's NCAA runner-up -- with 13 points, on 4-of-15 shooting.

Butler's struggles on the offensive end allowed the Huskies to pull away. Lamb hit a three-pointer with 17:48 remaining that gave UConn a 26-25 lead and touched off an 18-3 run that included more than six scoreless minutes for the Bulldogs. The game-defining highlight of that spurt came when Walker floated past Butler forward Matt Howard on the left side of the backboard, switched to his right hand and flipped in a layup that gave the Huskies an 11-point lead.

"The major adjustment was that we were going to out-will them and outwork them," Calhoun said. "Eventually, we outplayed them."

Most preseason publications predicted that a UConn team built around Walker and relying heavily on freshmen and sophomores would finish in the middle of the pack in a loaded Big East. The predictions proved 100 percent correct. The Huskies lost four of their final five regular-season games to fall to ninth in the conference. That meant UConn would have to win an unprecedented five games in five days to win the Big East tournament. Walker, who had been snubbed for the Big East Player of the Year award in favor of Notre Dame's Ben Hansborough, turned Madison Square Garden into his own personal playground and led the Huskies to a tourney title.

One question will follow the Huskies into the offseason. Did Calhoun coach his final game Monday? Calhoun, 68, has been a college head coach for 39 seasons and a UConn fixture since 1986. In February, the NCAA suspended Calhoun for the first three games of the 2011-12 Big East schedule and also hit the Huskies with scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions for violations committed in the recruitment of Nate Miles, who enrolled at UConn but never played a game before he was dismissed. Last week, Miles told The New York Times that Calhoun knew Miles was being paid by an agent during his recruitment. That contradicts what Miles told the NCAA last year, but if Miles chooses to speak to investigators, the NCAA could reopen the case, and Calhoun could face additional charges.

On Monday, Calhoun said he'd choose to "enjoy the moment." He and the Huskies certainly seemed to enjoy it. When Butler's Ronald Nored fouled Walker with 30 seconds remaining, the junior knew his vision was about to come true. He slammed the ball into the court in celebration and then sank two free throws. Calhoun stayed on one knee, coaching until he held his palms up to tell Lamb to hold the ball and let the clock expire. Then, Calhoun turned and hugged guard Donnell Beverly, UConn's lone senior. A few minutes later, the Huskies stood on a stage. One Shining Moment played. Walker bobbed his head and sang along -- just as he had envisioned.

"It was even better," Walker said. "It was unreal. I feel like I'm dreaming."

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