HOUSTON (AP) — Maybe this time that final, riveting shot will go in.
Maybe this time Butler won’t need it.
The Bulldogs are back in the national title game, not as lovable underdogs but as a team intent on making up for last year’s heartbreak.
“We’ve just got to be one shot better than last year,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens said after the Bulldogs’ 70-62 victory over VCU on Saturday night that put the Bulldogs back in the national title game and ended the warm-and-fuzzy story of this year’s tournament.
Shelvin Mack scored 24 points, Zach Hahn came up big off the bench and the Bulldogs shut VCU down with their trademark unforgiving defense. The eighth-seeded Bulldogs (28-9) will face the winner of Kentucky-Connecticut on Monday night, the first time since Duke in 1991 that the runner-up has returned to play for the championship.
As the players walked down the hall to the locker room, one shouted out: “We’re not done yet! Unfinished business, baby!”
“Last year we didn’t get it done, so that’s in the back of my mind,” said Mack, who earlier this week said national runners-up was just another way of saying “first losers.” ‘’My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball in position to have success.”
Hahn scored all eight 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.
“Butler was the aggressor for the majority of the game,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We had our runs.”
But not enough of them.
Jamie Skeen scored 27 and Bradford Burgess had 15, including three 3-pointers before the game was even four minutes old. But Stevens is known for his tactical acumen, and this game was no different. He tweaked Butler’s defense, and Burgess had just one more three the rest of the night.
VCU had always managed to find a shot when it needed it in its first three games, but Butler simply wouldn’t allow it. VCU was just 8 of 22 from long range, though that was still enough to set the NCAA record for most 3s in a tournament with 61.
But Brandon Rozzell, who tied his career high with six treys against Georgetown, was 0 for 3. Slippery point guard Joey Rodriguez didn’t make a shot until 8:30 left in the game, finishing with only three points on 1-of-7 shooting.
Butler also dominated the boards, outrebounding VCU 48-32.
The defense — and the big night by Mack — made up for a lackluster showing by leading scorer and rebounder Matt Howard. The senior had 17 points, but shot just 3-of-10 and picked up his fourth foul with 9:22 left.
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.
But it took Butler a while to get to this point. When the Bulldogs skidded through four losses in five games, including three straight, midway through the Horizon League season, many wondered if they’d even make the tournament, forget about the Final Four.
But they’ve reeled off 14 straight wins now and are playing with the cool determination of guys that don’t want to be “first losers” ever again.
Their defense during their winning streak has been just nasty, and it was what carried them again against the Rams.
After falling behind 34-28 at the half, the first time in the NCAA tournament they trailed at halftime, VCU reeled off five quick points to take a 35-34 lead. Then it was time for a little game of “Can you top this?”, starring Hahn.
Skeen made a 3 and Hahn answered back with one that didn’t even rustle the strings of the net. Skeen converted a three-point play, and Hahn made another 3. Brandon Rozzell, who tied his career high with six 3-pointers against Georgetown, showed he can score from inside, too, with a layup, only to have Hahn — who else? — make a reverse that put Butler in front 44-43 with 12:20 left.
Butler clamped down on the Rams, not allowing another field goal for more than three minutes. Meanwhile Mack, who earned most outstanding player honors in the Southeast Regional, showed off his dazzling skills yet again. He made back-to-back 3-pointers and then a layup to give Butler a 52-45 lead with 9:41 to play, and the game was all but over.
Butler’s run last year inspired mid-majors everywhere, including VCU. The Rams had won a grand total of five games in the NCAA tournament before this year, never more than one at a time.
But led by Smart, their cool and charismatic 33-year-old coach who is sure to be seen on the big stage again, they showed the little guys can play with anybody, anytime.
“We’re just a big family. This whole season was great. It was a great run. We made history. We kept making history,” Skeen said. “We went deep into the tournament and did what everyone said we couldn’t do.”
After VCU missed its first five shots of the game, Burgess drilled a 3 to spark an 11-0 run that gave the Rams an 11-5 lead with 15:38 left in the first half. Another 3 by Burgess about 2½ minutes later put the Rams up 15-7, and Stevens had had enough.
Burgess didn’t score again the rest of the half, and had only one more 3 the rest of the night.
Butler was an adorable story last year, a 4,200-student school playing for the national title just six miles from campus. That the Bulldogs play in the same arena where “Hoosiers” was filmed only added to the sweetness.
Although Butler has shown it has more substance than a movie sequel, consider this: that 1954 Milan team that was the basis for Hoosiers? It didn’t win the title on its first trip to the Indiana state finals.
It did it the second time around.
Butler 70, VCU 62
Burgess 4-10 3-4 15, Skeen 10-17 4-7 27, Haley 1-1 0-0 2, Rodriguez 1-8 0-0 3, Nixon 1-5 0-0 2, Reddic 2-3 0-0 4, Theus 1-3 0-0 2, Brandenberg 0-2 1-2 1, Daniels 0-0 0-0 0, Veal 2-4 0-0 4, Rozzell 1-5 0-0 2, Hinton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-58 8-13 62.
Howard 3-10 11-12 17, Smith 1-5 2-2 4, Mack 8-11 3-6 24, Vanzant 3-11 4-4 11, Stigall 0-3 0-0 0, Hahn 3-6 0-0 8, Nored 0-5 0-1 0, Marshall 3-8 0-1 6. Totals 21-59 20-26 70.
Halftime — Butler 34-28. Three-point goals — VCU 8-22 (Burgess 4-7, Skeen 3-4, Rodriguez 1-5, Rozzell 0-3, Nixon 0-3), Butler 8-23 (Mack 5-6, Hahn 2-5, Vanzant 1-3, Nored 0-1, Stigall 0-3, Howard 0-5). Rebounds — VCU 32 (Burgess 9), Butler 48 (Marshall 9). Assists — VCU 17 (Rodriguez 8), Butler 8 (Howard, Smith, Vanzant 2). Total fouls — VCU 24, Butler 16.