Mack leads Butler back to national title game
That was the rallying cry from the Butler Bulldogs, who are headed back to the title game, not as lovable underdogs but a team intent on making up for last year's heartbreak.
Maybe this time that final, riveting shot will go in.
Maybe this time Butler won't need it.
"We're not going to settle on just getting back," said Zach Hahn, who came up big off the bench in Butler's 70-62 victory over VCU on Saturday night that gave the Bulldogs a do-over and ended the warm-and-fuzzy story of this year's NCAA men's tournament.
"I remember the sour taste it left in my mouth last year, and I just think this group, we're here now and we have a chance. That's all you can ask."
Shelvin Mack scored 24 points, 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 and the Bulldogs shut down hot-shooting VCU with their trademark unforgiving defense. The eighth-seeded Bulldogs (28-9) will face Connecticut on Monday night, the lowest-seeded team to play for the national title since Villanova won it as a No. 8 seed in 1985.
"We've just got to be one shot better than last year," coach Brad Stevens said.
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 stifling 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 seven 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.
"Some of our shots didn't fall. Open shots, shots we'd been making," Rodriguez said. "I think if you go back and look at the tape, you'll see some of them were in and outs. Almost felt like it wasn't supposed to happen or something."
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.
"It's not one guy making plays," said Hahn, whose total Saturday was one point less than he'd had in Butler's previous four tournament games combined. "It's literally a collective effort; it's all 14 guys."
The Bulldogs came within a bounce of winning it all last year. But Gordon Hayward's last-ditch, half-court heave caromed off the rim, and Butler had to watch Duke celebrate the title with a 61-59 win.
"Last year we didn't get it done, so that's in the back of my mind," Mack said.
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," as Mack called them earlier this week, ever again.
About all they need to do now is practice those half-court shots — Hahn missed one at the halftime buzzer that looked eerily like Hayward's last-ditch effort last year.
Every other part of their game, the Bulldogs are set.
"We want to win. We don't look at it as it's a mid-major that wants to win," Howard said.
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. Rozzell 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.
"We're a defensive team, so we don't need to score 10 points in the last two minutes to win the game," said Andrew Smith, who had seven rebounds. "We'd much prefer to just get a few stops. That's kind of what we're made to do."
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.
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.
"Of course it's not a once in a lifetime run. We're going to try to do this every year," said Smart, in his second year at VCU. "It's not easy, there's no question about it. ... If we're capable of coming together as a group and playing aggressive, confident, loose basketball, and we have the right guys out there, it's certainly possible."
Just look at Butler.
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.