HOUSTON – Butler is ready for Part II.
After playing last season’s underdog role and advancing to the NCAA tournament final, the Bulldogs did it again Saturday – only this time as the favorite. A No. 8 seed, the Bulldogs defeated 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth 70-62 for another shot at winning it all.
A year older and wiser, Butler won’t be a wide-eyed wonder kid in the title game this season.
“It’s a focused locker room and we realize there’s still a game to play, and hopefully another game to be won,” forward Matt Howard said.
The Bulldogs became the nation’s lovable underdogs last season, drawing comparisons to the movie “Hoosiers” thanks to their small-school stature, Indianapolis roots and famous Hinkle Fieldhouse home only to lose to Duke in the final game. They were just as much a surprise this season, marching on despite losing forward Gordon Hayward to the NBA draft a season early and enduring a January slump in the Horizon League.
But now they will try to do what Villanova did as a No. 8 seed in 1985 and win the championship.
To make up for last season’s last-second loss in the final, the Bulldogs must take down No. 3 seed Connecticut – a team that knows a little something about winning championships.
Butler guard Shelvin Mack played like a man on a mission. He scored 24 points, making 5 of 6 3-pointers and received help from Howard, who scored 17 points with eight rebounds.
“He was a killer tonight,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said of Mack. “He stepped up and made some huge, huge shots.”
The Bulldogs were intrepid on defense, dictating the pace, eliminating the Rams’ 3-pointers as a dagger and crashing the boards. They outrebounded VCU 48-32 and outscored them 19-6 on second-chance points.
VCU started the game with its hot 3-point shooting, making 4 of 8 attempts. The Rams made 8 of 22 overall from beyond the perimeter, but Butler held them to 7.4 percent less than their tournament average of 43.8 and forced them to go inside.
“I was nervous as heck when they started making all those 3s early,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought our rotations were OK, but not good enough. But we defended for the most part like we wanted.”
Jamie Skeen, who picked up his third foul just 60 seconds after halftime, scored 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting, going against Howard.
The teams traded one-point leads through much of the second half until Butler made its run as Mack scored seven consecutive points to provide the Bulldogs with a seven-point lead with less than 9 minutes remaining.
VCU hung tough, but the Bulldogs made 7 of 8 free throws in the final 43 seconds to put the game on ice.
Howard was a disheveled mess at game’s end – a testament to his hard play in a game in which he played with four fouls in the second half.
“There’s a reason why he’s standing in these tournaments,” Stevens said.
“He just has a nonstop will to succeed for his team and that is it. Nothing else matters to him.”
VCU had defied the odds to reach its first Final Four, beating USC in the First Four game and using the criticism from analysts that it shouldn’t have earned a bid as motivation.
“It was a phenomenal run,” Smart said of his underdog team. “It’s a historic run. These guys are never going to be forgotten. Make no mistake about it, this one stings.”