HOUSTON—The season will end Monday night. The 41st game in this remarkable run will be the last. There is just another two-plus hours, 40 minutes of game time, for the 2010-11 Huskies to scramble around the court with the joy and passion that has defined a remarkable four-month piece of UConn basketball history.
This team will be remembered forever. That has been known for a while.
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Monday night at Reliant Stadium, the final and most important detail could be added to this enchanting script. UConn faces Butler in the national championship game. The ball goes in the air at about 9:23 p.m. Fans from the far reaches of Fairfield County to the corner of Windham County will be on the edge of their couches.
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Some UConn players said they would sleep like logs Sunday night. Others expected to toss and turn amid the anticipation. Still others said they've had trouble sleeping since the thought of a national championship felt truly possible after winning five games in five days at the Big East tournament. Wide awake through a dream. Imagine that.
The Huskies (31-9) have won 10 games in a row and need one more.
Looking back a few weeks, sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi said, "I did question our team. I said, 'Could we really win a national championship?' I said, 'Why not?' "
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But how? A lot of players and a lot of teams have done a lot of things in Jim Calhoun's 25 years at UConn. Perhaps no other team, though, has so effectively mixed focus and drive with a complete absence of stress and pressure. It all started for the Huskies in a Hawaiian breeze at the Maui Invitational and a few winter storms during Big East play didn't deter them.
Confetti will fall. Music and videos will play. The Huskies hope to be on the court sometime in the minutes before midnight, soaking it all in.
A victory would give UConn its third national championship and push the legacy of Jim Calhoun into a stratosphere of coaching legends. Only John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (four), Adolph Rupp (four) and Bob Knight (three) have won three or more titles.
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Standing in the way is Butler (28-9), whose improbable journey last season ended with a loss to Duke in the national championship game. Again on the brink of a title, the Bulldogs, who play in the Horizon League, have carried the mid-major flag through victories over Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Florida and Virginia Commonwealth.
"I think our team's very good," coach Brad Stevens said. "I think the teams we've been playing against are very good. We've been fortunate enough to squeak by and be here."
The Bulldogs are a feel-good story, too. They have talked about unfinished business for a year now. Stevens said they have "kept those rose-colored glasses on."
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Mid-major? Big East? Big whoop. None of it matters.
"We're going to try to win the game because we're going to try to win the national championship," Calhoun said. "No ifs, ands or buts. … They're certainly good enough to beat us. Our job is to beat them. … The thing I want is to win the game. Our kids want to win the championship. It's the greatest present I could give back to them for being such a great team for me and for our university. That's what I'd like to be able to give back for what this team has done."
The Bulldogs, who have won 14 in a row since losing three of four, have a solid forward in Matt Howard (averaging 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds) and a prolific guard in Shelvin Mack (averaging 16.1 points).
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"A pro, certainly," Calhoun said of Mack. "Phenomenal strength with the ball. Strength is a funny thing. You look at a guy like Alex — 248 pounds, incredibly strong — but Kemba Walker with the ball is probably stronger finishing a play. Mack is the same kind of guy."
Walker will again try to navigate a swarming defense. Rebounding is a key. Howard is continually in the right place at the right time for put-backs. Shooting, of course, is a key, too. The Huskies missed a lot of open shots Saturday against Kentucky.
This is all the fine print that will write the last chapter.
"To go through all the struggles we did earlier this season and still get here is a great feeling," Shabazz Napier said. "We still know there is a lot to do. These are two great teams playing for the same goal, and no one wants to lose."