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Getting To The NCAA Final Game From The Sidelines

DAVID GREENE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

After several weeks of nail-biter games and, yes, stressing over your brackets, the championship game is set in men's college basketball. It's the Connecticut Huskies versus the Bulldogs of Butler. NPR's Mike Pesca saw both teams win last night in Houston.

MIKE PESCA: Here's a little secret about watching the Final Four on TV: if you ever see shots of students looking up towards the heavens during critical moments it's not because the undergrads pictured are particularly worshipful. Rather, the students - who are behind the baskets, behind the band, behind rows of photographers, and as was the case in Houston, slightly below an elevated playing surface - have no recourse other than watching the game on the stadium's Jumbotron.

(Soundbite of cheering)

STUDENTS: Are you a bulldog? Hell, yeah. BU...

PESCA: Even so, the Butler student section couldn't believe their fortune -deja vu plus a year and a 17-hour drive. Last year's Final Four was in their home city of Indianapolis, so they brought their blue hair and good cheers.

Jordan Lay, vice president of the section called the dog pound, explains one.

Mr. JORDAN LAY: I yell dog pound and everyone responds by saying woo, woo, and then they take their foul shots.

STUDENTS: Woo.

PESCA: There you heard it and the shot...

(Soundbite of cheering)

PESCA: ...is good. Butler happened to make free throws aplenty - 20 of 26, in fact. Overall, they executed a game plan that anybody half paying attention could have anticipated. VCU had made its way to the Final Four on the basis of three-point shooting, but Butler forced VCU into its worst three-point performance of the tournament.

And then there was guard Shelvin Mack. He played like a man possessed, a man on a mission, a man with something to prove. After the game, Mack's teammate Ronald Nored revealed that he had planted those seeds during warm-ups.

Mr. RONALD NORED (Men's Basketball Team, Butler University): I told him that they, that some of the VCU guys said that, you know, they had guarded people a lot better than him.

Unidentified Woman: It wasn't true?

Mr. NORED: No, it wasn't true at all. I completely made it up.

Unidentified Woman: And why did you needed to do that to him?

Mr. NORED: You know, I saw Mark Jackson do it to Reggie. If you ever watched -I'm sure you've watched it - "30-for-30 Winning Time," and Reggie went off, so I figured it couldn't hurt.

PESCA: The documentary that Nored mentioned was about Reggie Miller's legendary playoff performance against the Knicks. Maybe that lie is the one blemish on Butler's image as an embodiment of the student athlete ideal that can counteract a carful of Calaparis...although drawing inspiration from a documentary does fit in with Butler's reputation as a team that loves to watch game film.

(Soundbite of cheering)

STUDENTS: Let's go, dogs. Let's go, dogs

PESCA: The Butler fans chant seemed to reverberate through the Reliant Center as another kind of dog, the Huskies, led Kentucky by 10 at halftime. For a time, the defenses were man-to-man, and the scoring was Lamb-to-Lamb.

Jeremy Lamb notched Connecticut's last points of the first half; Doron Lamb of Kentucky hit consecutive threes early in the second half to pull the Wildcats to within one and then to move ahead for the bit. But in the end, it was Kemba Walker, UConn's indefatigable playmaker, who was the difference, though he disclosed, he was fatigued.

Mr. KEMBA WALKER (Men's Basketball Team, UConn): I usually won't tell you guys I was tired but I actually was.

PESCA: Luckily, for Connecticut's fortunes, he couldn't get the words out to tell his coach, Jim Calhoun.

Mr. JIM CALHOUN (Head Coach, Men's Basketball Team, UConn): I thought he was fatigued, quite frankly, most of the game. And at the end, during a timeout, I asked him did he need a 30-second blow, and he was bent over so he never responded. So, I just kept playing him.

PESCA: For Calipari, losing such a close game was devastating.

Mr. JOHN CALIPARI (Head Coach, Men's Basketball, University of Kentucky): Well, what happens in college basketball when it ends you fall off a cliff. We just went six months, no days off for the coaches, and now it just ends. It's done.

PESCA: That's one thing that's different about the men's championship tomorrows. Every other game in the tournament is lose and go home. But both finalists go home either way. It's just a lot nicer to take a trophy home with you.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.