Somewhere along the line, disbelief was met by something that felt like design, and so in the minutes before midnight Monday at Reliant Stadium, Kemba Walker strolled across the court, kicking up streamers that had fallen from high above, and offered the perfect irony to sum up this remarkable journey.
"We shocked the world," he said. "We were destined."
One might wonder how this happened. How did the 2010-11 UConn Huskies navigate this rocky and glorious path from Storrs to Maui to New York to Washington to Anaheim to Houston and end up as national champions?
Then again, after four weeks of magic and moments that captivated the sporting world, how could it have ended any other way?
UConn, a team to be forever treasured from Greenwich to Thompson and Salisbury to Stonington, defeated Butler 53-41 before 70,376 to secure its third national title in 13 years. The legacy of coach Jim Calhoun, now one of five coaches to win three or more championships, shot into the stratosphere with other legends, and the program he essentially built from scratch between the rolling hills of Storrs has again climbed the NCAA mountain.
"I've been fortunate enough to have some great teams at UConn," said Calhoun, who had never shown this much joy in coaching a team, even through some personal and professional strife along the way. "Very honestly, this group to me will always be incredibly special. They're all special in their own way. But I needed this team. Very rarely does a coach say that. But I needed this team every day for 109 practice sessions. Everybody involved, they truly were brothers."
These are the season's final snapshots for the family album: Calhoun hugging anyone in sight. Walker, the transcendent star, dashing to the far corner of the cavernous stadium and celebrating with fans from Connecticut. Other players chattering endlessly — "Joy, joy, happiness," Roscoe Smith said. Still, others are lost for words. Team manager Jordan Rich clutching the championship trophy like a teddy bear, one of the nets draped around his neck, staring up at the video montage as "One Shining Moment" played over the loudspeakers.
The team that forgot how to lose about a month ago when everyone else seemed to forget about them, period, found the grit and grace to emerge from a truck-pull of a title game. The Huskies outscored Butler, a Cinderella no more but a bridesmaid again, 34-19 in the second half and ran away, leading by as many as 14.
Walker, named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. He made just 5 of 16 shots — but everyone missed shots. The Huskies shot 19-for-55 (34.5 percent). Butler shot an atrocious 12-for-64 (18.8 percent), a championship game low.
Jeremy Lamb had 12 points, all in the second half. Alex Oriakhi, by far the strongest and most active player in the paint, had 11 points and 11 rebounds, making 5 of 6 shots in 25 minutes.
Shelvin Mack had 13 points and nine rebounds for Butler but made just 4 of 15 shots with Lamb's long arms in his face.
"Without question, 41 points, 12 of 64, is not good enough to win any game, let alone the national championship game," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "It stings."
UConn (32-9) played an NCAA record 41 games this season and won the final 11. They lost seven of 11 to close the regular season, looked in the mirror and asked the most important questions. What are you made of? What are you capable of?
And then they showed it with five victories in five days at the Big East tournament. And again in the NCAA Tournament with victories over Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Arizona, Kentucky and then Butler, which lost last year's championship game to Duke.
"Coach Calhoun, he's been through a lot this whole year with deaths in his family, NCAA stuff, everybody just picking on us, of course," Walker said. "But I think we helped him overcome everything. We won two of the biggest tournaments on the collegiate level. I think we made his year."
More beautiful irony: UConn scored a season low for the second consecutive game yet won both. The Huskies took control with a 20-3 run in the second half, breaking free from the malaise that plagued both teams. Lamb swished a jumper and finished an alley-oop from Shabazz Napier. Walker made a fancy scoop layup. The party started.
Halftime was not a party. It was a final look in the mirror.
"Coach was mad," Napier said.
Mack had hit consecutive three-pointers, the second one beating the buzzer, and the Bulldogs led 22-19 at the break. Mack hit another three early in the second and the lead was six. Time to worry? This team has taught us better.
Lamb hit two free throws, Walker made a jumper, Tyler Olander scored on a put-back, Walker made a free throw and the Huskies were off and running … into history, into their dreams.
"It just felt good," Lamb said, "having the ball, knowing that we won the game through all the stuff we've been through."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times