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UConn 53, Butler 41

A breed apart

Walker and Huskies capture national title

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By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / April 5, 2011

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HOUSTON — The run began on a Tuesday afternoon in March at Madison Square Garden in New York in a first-round Big East tournament game that ninth-place teams in the conference must endure.

But that’s what coach Jim Calhoun’s University of Connecticut team was at the time — a squad that seemingly had lost its winning touch, one with limited postseason potential.

Four weeks and 11 wins later — five in five remarkable days in the Big East tourney — the Huskies cut down the nets at Reliant Stadium last night as the 2011 men’s national basketball champion after a 53-41 win over a Butler team that had big dreams of its own.

The victory elevated the Huskies’ record to 32-9 and gave Calhoun his third, and perhaps most rewarding, national championship in a season that was filled with wins, losses, heartbreak, and the specter of NCAA probation, which has diminished the pleasure of the amazing run.

For Butler (28-10), which had come within a basket of beating Duke in last year’s national title game, it was a bitter ending to what had been as sweet a final run as the Huskies’.

Coach Brad Stevens’s team also had been struggling during the final stages of the Horizon League season before it found the mojo that had made it such a feel-good story a year ago.

Last night, however, the magic ended and the Bulldogs looked more like the team that lost to Youngstown State in February — the last team to beat Butler until the title game.

They set all sorts of negative offensive records, and made only 18.8 percent of their shots (12 of 64).

“They’re a great defensive team,’’ said guard Shelvin Mack, who led the Bulldogs with 13 points and made only 4 of 15 shots. “They’re very athletic. They would contest shots that people normally wouldn’t be able to contest.’’

Stevens knew the numbers were troublesome. “You know, 41 points, 12 of 64 is not good enough to win any game, let alone the national championship game.’’ he said.

Remarkably, the Bulldogs managed to grab a 3-point halftime lead at 22-19, but UConn, led by Kemba Walker (16 points) and Jeremy Lamb (12 points) took over in the second half. The Huskies took the lead, built it to double digits, and pulled away to make Calhoun only the fifth coach to win at least three national titles, joining John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski, and Bob Knight.

“The championship is incredibly wonderful to bring back to Connecticut and our fans,’’ said Calhoun, whose previous titles came in 1999 and 2004. “But to give these kids, the work they put in, it’s maybe, professionally, the happiest moment of my life.’’

Butler opened the second half with a 3-pointer, increasing its lead to 6. But led by Walker, voted the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and Lamb, the marvelous 6-foot-5-inch freshman, the Huskies went on a 14-1 run to take a 33-26 lead at the 12:56 mark. Three minutes later, the margin was into double digits and Butler’s flame, which had burned so brightly the past few weeks, was nearly snuffed out.

“We made some adjustments,’’ said Calhoun. “The major adjustment we made was that we were going to outwill them and outwork them, and eventually we outplayed them.’’

That has been the mantra for UConn through most of the season, one in which they were unbeatable outside of conference play, and unstoppable after the Big East tournament started.

“You know, we’ve been through a lot this year,’’ said Walker, a junior who’s likely headed to the NBA. “We had a tough midseason but we stuck with each other and great things happened for us. It can’t get better than this.’’

The Huskies had the opposite feeling when they lost four of their last five regular-season games, which dropped them into the dreaded play-in round of the conference tourney.

Last night, as Butler missed shot after shot against an increasingly aggressive and effective UConn defense, Calhoun began to relax. Finally, as the final seconds ticked off, Calhoun pumped his fist. An improbable mission such a short time ago had been accomplished.

“I love coaching, I love my team,’’ the 68-year-old Calhoun said when asked about his coaching future. “Once again, I’ll do the same thing I always do. We’ll go home, relax, get together with these guys, and just enjoy the moment.’’

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.