UConn’s Beautiful Defense Stifles Butler in National Championship

The clean swishes were rare and the iron clanged loudly too many times, but don’t let anyone tell you that the national championship game was ugly. The 41 combined points in the first half may have been the fewest points in a half in a championship game since 1946, but it was far from ugly.

“To me, that’s beauty. That’s what this game should be about,” Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun said. “It was two teams that weren’t going to give in to each other.”

Butler may have shot 19 percent for the game and trailed by 11 points with eight minutes left, but there was never any doubt that they could win.

“That belief is always there,” Butler senior Matt Howard said. “I don’t think that ever really wavered. We kept telling each other, ‘Shots are going to go in, keep shooting, it’s going to be fine.’”

Though the shots never fell, the Bulldogs fought until the end. For Butler head coach Brad Stevens, that was all he could ask for.

“The least of a coach’s concern is whether or not shots go in; it’s how you’re acting, how you’re operating, how you’re screening,” Stevens said. “Sometimes shots don’t go in, and that’s basketball.”

So, what is an ugly game, really? Like Calhoun said, “If you like it wide open and you want nothing but a 49-42 football game with a lot of scores, it wasn’t your game.”

But if you love tough, physical matchups with bodies diving for loose balls and fundamentally sound defense, this was indeed your game. In fact, you might even call this a gem of a game.

“From a purist’s standpoint, you want to teach them defense. Take a clip of both teams; you’d see some terrific defense,” Calhoun said.

This game wasn’t going to keep you on the edge of your seat with back-and-forth scoring and 20 lead changes. The numerous missed layups from Butler may have reminded viewers at home of their own pickup games in the gym. The four total fast-break points glaringly emphasized how the players moved at half speed for most of the game.

But you know what this game had? Grit. Faith. Tactical coaching.

Jeremy Lamb, who had played an extremely pivotal role in UConn’s successful Tournament run, scored zero points in the first half. In the second half, he scored 12 points on 4/6 shooting and pulled down five rebounds.

“My teammates just encouraged me, saying, ‘We need you.’ Coach got into me,” he said. “Right out of the half, they ran a couple plays for me. I was able to get to the foul line. All I wanted to see was the ball go in the net. After I saw it go in a couple times, I got my confidence back.”

Down three, Calhoun made his own “technical adjustments” at halftime in the chess match with Stevens. “I said, ‘If you play fast on defense, we’ll get faster on offense,’” Calhoun said. “The assistants told them [players] . . . you’re too good for this. If they beat us, that’s fine, but we’re not playing full speed. We look awful on offense because we’re walking into screens.”

After a quick 3-pointer by Butler’s Chase Stigall to start the second half, the Huskies scored 14 straight points before the Bulldogs made another field goal. By the time the blitz was over, UConn led 33-26, had all the momentum, and was on its way to winning another national title.

The Huskies stopped playing at half speed. They listened to their coaches, believed in each other, and shot a much improved 42 percent in the second half as a result. Their defensive intensity also increased as they held Butler to 16 percent shooting.

So, don’t let anyone tell you that it was an ugly national championship game. Great defense is so ugly, it’s beautiful.

Susan Shan covered the 2011 Final Four in Houston.

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