HOUSTON >> With every brick launched by Butler Monday night in cavernous Reliant Stadium, Connecticut built a lead and control of the NCAA final, finishing a comeback from its middling Big East regular-season status to national champion.
The Huskies’ defense completely shut out the Bulldogs’ inside game, forcing their opponents to unsuccessfully launch from the perimeter, and their offense warmed up in the second half, propelling UConn to a 53-41 victory and giving head coach Jim Calhoun his third national championship.
The Huskies (32-9), who won their last 11 games after struggling at the end of the Big East regular season, won their first title since 2004. They also won in 1999, giving the 68-year-old Calhoun three, more than any coach except John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski, and Bob Knight.
For Butler (28-10), trying to become only the second No. 8 seed (besides Villanova in 1985) to win a national championship, the loss marked its second straight disappointing end to a season. The Bulldogs lost to Duke, 61-59, in the 2010 title game.
The Bulldogs simply could not buy a basket, particularly inside the three-point arc, where they finished the game just 3 of 31. They shot 12 of 64 (18.8 percent) for the game.
After leading by three points at intermission, Butler connected on just 2 of its first 25 shots in the second half, going without a point, scoring just three in a span of 13 minutes, 25 seconds.
The Huskies capitalized on the poor shooting to outscore Butler by 22-3 and took a 41-28 lead on a baseline jumper by Alex Oriakhi with 7:33 to play. They later extended their lead to 14 on Oriakhi’s three-point play with 5:49 remaining.
Butler got back-to-back threes from Shelvin Mack to close to within eight, 49-41, with 1:32 to play, but the Huskies successfully ran down the clock. Jeremy Lamb hoisted the ball skyward as the buzzer sounded.
Kemba Walker shot just 5 of 19 but led the Huskies with 16 points and nine rebounds. Lamb added 12 and Oriakhi had 11, with 11 rebounds. Mack was the only Bulldog in double figures, scoring 13 points but hitting on just 4 of 15 shots.
Matt Howard, Butler’s senior big man, hit just 1 of 13 shots and scored seven points.
Points were difficult to come by in the first half, which ended with Butler holding a 22-19 lead. It marked the fewest combined points in the first half of an NCAA championship game since Oklahoma State led North Carolina, 23-17, in the 1946 final.
The Huskies’ 19 points were the fewest for a first half in a title game since California scored that many in 1960.
Butler got away with a cold start, making only one of its first nine shots. But the Bulldogs pressed the issue at the start of the second half as well, connecting on just one of their first 15 shots, including 13 consecutive misses.
After trailing by six when Chase Stigall hit a trey on Butler’s first possession, the Huskies ran off eight consecutive points. Lamb sank a three-pointer and Walker hit a free throw to end the run with 16:19 remaining and UConn leading, 28-26.
After a Butler free throw, the Huskies scored six more, including Lamb’s dunk off a steal and his short baseline jumper, to increase their margin to seven, 33-26, with 12:55 to play.
In the first half, the Bulldogs shot 1 of 13 from inside the three-point arc, got outrebounded by 27-18, yielded 11 offensive boards to the Huskies, and still found a way to take the lead at halftime. Mack provided the margin with a three-pointer at the buzzer.
The Bulldogs bailed themselves out with 5-of-14 three-point shooting. They wound up going plus-15 from deep because UConn missed all five of its three-ball tries. That made the Huskies 1 of 17 for their three halves of Final Four competition.
If the stats don’t convince you, believe this: The first 20 minutes were ugly.
Walker and Mack, the top scorers for each team, collectively missed their first nine shots from the floor. Walker finally got on the board with a jumper from near the right elbow at the 13:08 mark. Mack sank a free throw but didn’t pick up his initial field goal until he drained a trey with 4:15 left in the half.
Both players led their teams with seven points at the break. Walker connected on just 3 of 11 and missed both his three-point attempts. Mack missed both his two-point attempts and went 2 of 5 from deep.
The Huskies had the better of the shooting (29.0 percent) and rebounding. But even with 11 offensive rebounds, they managed just four second-chance points compared to seven for Butler.
Walker’s three-point play with 12:34 to play gave Connecticut its largest lead of the half, 13-8. But sophomore guard Chase Stigall, who has started every NCAA contest but had seen just 16 minutes of playing time per game in the previous five, knocked down a three-ball to cap an 8-2 run and give Butler a 16-15 lead with 7:20 remaining.
UConn responded with baskets on back-to-back trips — short jumpers by Walker and Donnell Beverly — but did not score for the final 6:05.