Sometimes, a game-winning play is craftily designed and enacted with precision by each of the five players on the floor.
And sometimes, the decisive basket is the result of an enormous amount of luck.
The play that Butler used to beat Old Dominion 60-58 on Thursday fell squarely into the latter category. Afterward, the Bulldogs made no apologies — especially because their previous foray into the NCAA tournament ended when a last-second shot failed to go their way.
Matt Howard’s tip-in at the buzzer carried the eighth-seeded Bulldogs past ODU and into the next round of the Southeast Regional. The play was not what Butler coach Brad Stevens had in mind when he sent his team to the floor with the score tied and 32 seconds left.
Guard Shawn Vanzant was driving to the basket from the right side when he lost his footing and threw the ball toward the rim. Teammate Andrew Smith slapped the ball out of the air off the backboard, and Howard went up with his right hand and put the ball in from the left side an instant before time expired.
”We were fortunate to win,” Stevens said. ”It didn’t look pretty and that’s not exactly the way you want it to end by any means, but they were in the right spots.”
A year ago, Butler’s magical run to the NCAA championship game ended with a narrow miss from halfcourt at the buzzer against Duke. In this game, the Bulldogs got the bounce they needed.
”A lot of credit has got to go to Andrew, who made a great play to keep it alive,” Howard said. ”I tried to get it up as quickly as possible, and fortunately we had just enough time.”
Howard and Shelvin Mack each scored 15 points for Butler (24-9), which will play the winner of Thursday’s Pittsburgh-UNC Asheville game. The Bulldogs have won 10 straight overall.
Frank Hassell led Old Dominion (27-7) with 20 points. The defeat ended the Monarchs’ nine-game winning streak.
Hassell was in the lane during the final play, but couldn’t get his hand on the ball.
”Howard came across and got it and threw it in on me,” Hassell said. ”Lucky bounce for a good player. I mean, you work hard, you get some of those.”
Asked to describe his emotions when the ball dropped through the rim, Hassell said, ”Shocked, really. I was praying to God that the red light came on before the ball left his hands. Then when I saw the replay, shock turned to hurt.”
The game featured 21 lead changes, and neither team led by more than six points.
Old Dominion came in with the best rebounding margin in the country, and Butler’s effort to overcome that obstacle — and keep Hassell under control in the paint — became even tougher after the 6-foot-8 Howard picked up his third foul with 16:36 left. Smith, a 6-11 center, was called for his fourth foul 40 seconds later.
Howard remained in the game and Smith was replaced by Garrett Butcher, who scored six straight points in an 8-1 run that put Butler ahead 49-43.
Old Dominion answered with a 6-0 spurt that began with a 3-pointer by Darius James with 10:09 to go. The Monarchs’ next field goal came more than 7-1/2 minutes later, but the basket by Hassell sparked a six-point run that tied it with 32 seconds remaining.
Butler found a way to win, albeit not exactly how Stevens drew it up.
”I had no doubt that we were going to win the game,” Howard said. ”I didn’t think we were going to win it that way, but when you’ve been in those situations, been in those kind of battles and close games, you have confidence that you’re going to be able to pull it out.”
Howard’s finisher came on Butler’s 32nd rebound. Old Dominion finished with 29, only the second time this season the Monarchs were outrebounded.
”I feel like rebounding was a big factor in the game,” Monarchs forward Ben Finney said. ”We’re one of the best rebounding teams, but they were very scrappy and competed. They were the better team.”
The game started with a frantic pace, as both teams ran up and down the floor until the initial foul finally stopped play at the 15:50 mark.
The lead also went back and forth until ODU reserve guard Trian Iliadis drilled a 3-pointer and Keyon Carter made a soft jumper to make it 18-13. Over the next eight minutes, however, the Monarchs went 1 for 6 with seven turnovers and fell behind 22-21.
Hassell made Old Dominion’s final three field goals in a first half that featured 13 lead changes and ended with the Monarchs clinging to a 29-27 lead.