Butler, UConn set for NCAA championship game

Butler's Shelvin Mack, left, and Ronald Nored react during the second half of a men's NCAA Final Four semifinal college basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth Saturday, March 2, 2011, in Houston. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Butler 70, VCU 62

The lovable underdog label is long gone. Now Butler is determined to drop that "first loser" tag, too.

Shelvin Mack scored 24 points and Zach Hahn came up big off the bench, ending the warm-and-fuzzy story of this year's tournament with a 70-62 victory over VCU in the Final Four on Saturday night. The victory sends Butler to the national title game for a second straight year and marks the first time since Duke in 1991 that the runner-up has returned to play for the championship.

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"Last year we didn't get it done, so that's in the back of my mind," Mack said. "My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball in position to have success."

Hahn scored all eight points of his points during a 90-second span in the second half that gave Butler control of the game for good.

VCU (28-12) sure didn't look like a team critics dismissed as "unworthy" - and a whole lot worse - after it skidded into the NCAA tournament with five losses in its last eight games. But Butler's unforgiving defense was too much for the Rams, only the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four.

"They played terrific all the way through, and we were fortunate to pull that one out," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "We had guys make individual plays all the way through that were crucial."

Jamie Skeen scored 27 and Brandon Burgess had 15, but the Rams made only eight 3-pointers and shot less than 40 percent from the field. Joey Rodriguez, the smooth point guard who dictates VCU's offense, didn't make a shot until 8:30 left in the game, finishing with only three points on 1-of-7 shooting.

The Bulldogs came within a bounce of winning it all last year only to see Gordon Hayward's last-ditch, half-court heave carom off the rim and watch Duke celebrate the title with a 61-59 win. That the Bulldogs are playing for the title again is maybe even more impressive than the first trip, having lost Hayward, their leading scorer and rebounder, to the NBA lottery. Butler also lost two other players who made significant contributions, Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes.

Everybody guarded, everybody stayed together and that's what this is all about.

UConn 56, Kentucky 55

When it's win or go home, nobody's better than Kemba and the kids.

Kemba Walker scored 18 points Saturday night to lift Connecticut to its 10th straight victory since finishing off a .500 regular season, a 56-55 win over cold-shooting Kentucky that moved the Huskies a victory away from their third, and most improbable, NCAA title.

Walker, a quick-handed junior from the Bronx, added seven assists to help UConn (31-9) extend a winning streak that started with a five-wins-in-five-nights leg-drainer at the Big East tournament and now includes five more at the tournament that really counts.

The third-seeded Huskies - lowest seed left in a tournament that has been as unpredictable as any in history - will face No. 8 Butler, a 70-62 winner over 11th-seeded VCU in the first semifinal, on Monday.

"We've got a heck of a challenge on Monday night, but the fact that we're playing Monday night, that's beautiful," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said.

This one was not pretty on either end.

Fourth-seeded Kentucky (29-9) shot 33.9 percent for the game and went 5:39 without a point late in the second half. UConn wasn't much better, but Walker, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier all made baskets to turn a 48-48 tie into a 54-48 lead with 2:29 left.

DeAndre Liggins made a 3-pointer for the Wildcats to cut the deficit to three, and Kentucky had its chances. But Brandon Knight, one of John Calipari's three sensational freshmen, barely drew iron on a 3-pointer. After Kentucky got the rebound, Liggins drew a foul but only hit one of two free throws.

Kentucky forced one more turnover and went for the win, but this time, it was Liggins whose 3-pointer was short. Napier made two free throws to make it 56-52, then Knight ended the game with a 3-pointer at the buzzer - a meaningless make and a cruel close to what has otherwise been a remarkable season for Calipari and Co. - Kentucky's first trip to the Final Four since winning it all in 1998.

"It's an amazing feeling," Walker said. "It's a little surreal right now, but hopefully we can bring it back to Storrs."


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