The UConn Huskies are the 2011 NCAA National Champions. Four weeks ago, those were nine words no one would have thought to string together to make a sentence. Now, after 11 consecutive victories -- all in the postseason -- the Huskies are the best team in the country, defeating Butler in the finals, 53-41.
Perhaps the only thing more unlikely than UConn's title run is that Kemba Walker wasn't the team's MVP on this night. There's a good argument that the honor should go to sophomore center Alex Oriakhi, who finished the game with 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, not to mention the countless Butler shots he altered.
That's not to say Walker didn't show up -- he had 16 points and nine rebounds -- but Butler focused a lot of their energy on containing him, and for the first half they were successful.
In fact, for the first 20 minutes the Huskies' unsung heroes -- from freshmen Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey to Oriakhi, Charles Okwandu and Donnell Beverly -- picked up the slack while Walker (7 points) and Jeremy Lamb (0 points) found their games. But the second half belonged to Lamb (12 points, 7 rebounds), Oriakhi and the Huskies defense.
Butler led 22-19 at the break and were subsequently outscored 34-19 in the final 20 minutes. More than that, the Bulldogs literally couldn't make a layup; UConn bested them 22-2 on points in the paint. Turns out, Butler's shooting woes were epic: they shot 18.8 percent from the field, the lowest ever in a championship game. They made 12 field goals all night, and by by comparison the ineptitude made the Huskies and their 34.5 percent shooting percentage seem like a finely tuned offensive machine.
The biggest concern for UConn coming into this game was exhaustion. The Final Four match-up against Kentucky was especially draining, undoubtedly due to the magnitude of the event coupled with the cumulative effects of so many games in such a short period.
Coach Jim Calhoun admitted Sunday that he was worried about the possibility of his players being out of gas, which explains why he substituted liberally in the first half against Butler. It was a risky move since names like Olander and Giffey don't play a lot of minutes, but they delivered and then some. Not only converting open looks, but playing the type of defense that causes an opponent to make 18 percent of their shots.
Whatever, style points don't matter. UConn played stifling defense, was able to convert on the offensive end in the final 15 minutes, and when we look back on this game we'll only remember that Calhoun pulled off the impossible: he won a national championship with one superstar and a bunch of kids, and the victory put him in elite company. Since 1999, he's the only man with three titles. Not even Mike Krzyzewski, Billy Donovan or Roy Williams can say that.
"It's so special … these group of kids have given me a year -- every single coach should get at least one year like this," Calhoun said on the floor after the game. "The championship is incredibly wonderful to bring back to Connecticut and our fans, but to give it to these kids, for the incredible work they've put in, maybe closest to the happiest moment in my life."
An incredible end to an improbable season.