Return engagement in NCAA title game for Butler

HOUSTON — One year after stunning the college basketball world with its unexpected trip to the national championship game, Butler is making a return trip.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

The Bulldogs defeated Virginia Commonwealth, 70-62, in the national semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, and become the first No. 8 seed to play for the championship since Villanova upset Georgetown in 1985.

Connecticut or Kentucky will be the title-game opponent, as Butler looks to finish better than last season, when Gordon Hayward’s desperation three-pointer from midcourt banged off the backboard and rim, preserving Duke’s two-point victory.

Perhaps it was with that game in mind that Butler’s postgame celebration on Saturday lasted only momentarily.

“It’s a focused locker room,” Bulldogs forward Matt Howard said. “We realize there’s a game to play.”

Saturday, the Bulldogs’ stars took turns finishing off VCU.

Guard Shelvin Mack proved unstoppable during a 21/2 minute run when he scored 10 straight points, giving Butler a seven-point lead.

After the Rams closed the margin to 61-57 on Jamie Skeen’s three-pointer, Howard took it upon himself to extend the lead. He scored six of the Bulldogs’ next eight while playing with four fouls, putting the game on ice.

Mack finished with 24, Howard with 17. They’ve been the Bulldogs’ go-to sources all season, although they got plenty of help.

Just before Mack’s flurry, reserve guard Zach Hahn ignited Butler with eight consecutive points. He had scored nine points in the first four NCAA Tournament games.

“He has that mind-set of, ‘when I’m open, I’m going to make it, and I’m going to take the big ones,'” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “He kind of settled us down.”

So here they, the Bulldogs back in the title game. A year ago, their run to the final was seen as a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Crazy stuff for a team from the midmajor Horizon Conference to reach the Final Four, much less the national championship game.

But the Bulldogs are back, this time as a No. 8 seed — and after losing Hayward to the NBA. And Butler is so serious about this trip that Stevens didn’t chest bump any of his players.

“I told our guys I’m doing the flying chest bump until we get through the weekend,” Stevens said. “Our guys know how to turn it on from a business standpoint.”

VCU was making some history of its own.

The Rams were among the handful of teams resigned to play in the First Four, essentially a play-in game that whittles down the bracket to 64 teams.

VCU beat Southern California and was the No. 11 seed in the Southwest Region. The Rams went on to wallop established powers Georgetown and Purdue, then pulled off one of the shockers of the tournament, downing top-seeded and second-ranked Kansas and reaching the program’s first Final Four.

“Make no mistake about it, this one really stings,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said.

Now, the Rams must work on keeping Smart, who completes his second season and surely will be target for other schools looking for a new coach.

VCU appeared to use the same formula Saturday it did against the Jayhawks. Saturday, the Rams fell behind 5-0 — it was 6-0 against Kansas. But VCU ripped off 11 straight points and grabbed a 15-7 lead.

Butler fought back and led 34-28 at the break. For the first time in the tournament, VCU trailed at halftime.

But the Rams came out of the locker room on fire, scoring the first seven. That’s about when Hahn went to work, with the lefty burying three-pointers on successive possessions. Just when it seemed VCU had the momentum, Hahn applied the daggers.

Butler pounded VCU on the boards, winning the battle 48-32. Besides Skeen, who finished with 27, the Rams had little else.

“That was probably the most physical team we played all year,” Skeen said.

Smart thought another statistic was just as significant. His team was whistled for 24 fouls to Butler’s 16.

“I thought the foul disparity was significant,” Smart said. “It really affected the game.”

But not the outcome. Butler proved to be the better team, and now it gets another opportunity to be the best in college basketball.


(c) 2011, The Kansas City Star.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.



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Return engagement in NCAA title game for Butler