Published November 20, 2014
Alex Oriakhi and the rest of his frontcourt mates led Connecticut to its third national title by succeeding where so many teams have failed: They bullied Butler.
The Huskies were portrayed as the villains coming in, the menacing power from the big-time conference pitted against the plucky underdogs from the heartland.
It's a role UConn embraced, and one it excelled at while overpowering the Bulldogs in a dominant if not aesthetically pleasing 53-41 victory Monday night.
The Huskies held Butler to 12 field goals — the second-fewest in title game history — and just two points in the paint while blocking 10 shots and altering numerous others. The Bulldogs set a record for futility, making just 19 percent of their shots.
"I definitely think we got in their head," said Oriakhi, who shook off first-half foul trouble to finish with 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. "They were second-guessing shots they were taking and if we didn't block it we were able to alter it. I definitely think it frustrated them and we got them out of their comfort zone."
It certainly looked that way.
The hulking 6-foot-9 Oriakhi and the rest of UConn's muscular and long front line disrupted Butler's timing and shook the Bulldogs' confidence.
It wasn't the first time the Bulldogs have been undersized during their run to consecutive national title games. It's the first time they looked overmatched.
Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith, Charles Okwandu and Tyler Olander turned the lane into a no-fly zone. Butler went through two long stretches without a basket in the second half, and shots that had fallen so often for the Bulldogs during their two-year tournament run rolled off the rim, if they got to the rim at all.
Howard, who'd played so consistently throughout the tournament despite facing sizable challenges from the likes of Pittsburgh and Florida, simply couldn't get going. He missed 12 of his 13 shots, his only basket a 3-pointer in the first half.
Blame it on Oriakhi, who didn't get discouraged while spending the last 10:26 of the first half on the bench after picking up his second foul. His teammates simply urged him to stand his ground and play smart while trying to defend the slick and relentless Howard.
"He played as hard as he can and disrupted a lot of shots tonight," UConn guard Shabazz Napier said. "When you have a guy like that, you're like, 'Wow, I'm glad we got him next year.'"
Oriakhi had plenty of help. Okwandu gummed up the works while Oriakhi played cheerleader at the end of the first half, and finished with five rebounds and a block. Smith turned away four Butler shots, and Niels Giffey added four points and six rebounds.
It was easily UConn's best defensive game of the season.
Butler has a habit of making opponents play ugly and frustrating them when things don't go well, but UConn hardly seemed concerned with style points — not with a championship on the line.
The Huskies stopped worrying about being pretty a long time ago.
Butler's only basket in the lane came on a layup by Andrew Smith with 6:13 to play. It drew a roar from the decidedly pro-Butler crowd, but the score was still 41-30. Smith was 2 of 9 from the floor and Butler made just three 2-point field goals.
"They're very athletic," Butler point guard Shelvin Mack said. "They contested shots that people normally wouldn't be able to contest."
The Bulldogs took a 22-19 lead into the break, and stretched it to six on a 3-pointer by Chase Stigall moments into the second half, but that would be their last push.
Oriakhi collected himself on offense as the Huskies started flexing their muscle. They finished with 26 points in the lane and didn't get lulled into playing "The Butler Way."
Coach Jim Calhoun preaches defense first, and the Huskies responded with a performance that made up for in effort what it lacked in polish.
"You need to understand that defense is going to really take you and hold you in any game till your offense gets going," Calhoun said. "I think that's what happened tonight."