The players in the Butler locker room celebrated their latest stunning upset in the NCAA tournament by screaming, exchanging high fives and hugging each other.
Across the arena, Pittsburgh forward Nasir Robinson sat in front of his locker with his shoulders slumped. His voice was barely audible.
”I take the blame, man. I take the blame for the loss,” Robinson said, referring to the pivotal play in Butler’s 71-70 victory over the top-seeded Panthers on Saturday night.
Matt Howard made one free throw with 0.8 seconds left to cap a wild final sequence that enabled No. 8 seed Butler (25-9) to advance to the round of 16 and deal Pittsburgh its latest painful exit from the NCAAs.
Each team had a chance to win it from the foul line in the last two seconds. After Butler’s Shelvin Mack inexplicably fouled Gilbert Brown near midcourt with 1.4 seconds left, Brown made the first try to tie it.
He missed the second, and Howard was fouled by Robinson while grabbing the rebound – a foul even more unnecessary than the one that preceded it.
”I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I know I shouldn’t have done that. It was a stupid play,” Robinson said. ”It wasn’t the ref’s fault. It was my fault.”
Robinson tried to answer another question, but got choked up and just shook his head side to side before putting a towel over his head.
When Howard grabbed the rebound of Brown’s miss, it appeared the game would be going to overtime because the Bulldogs were out of timeouts. Then Robinson stuck his arm into the fray.
”I was really surprised,” Howard said. ”I felt his arm come across mine, so I just threw the ball to the rim.”
Howard made the first shot, then intentionally missed the second attempt.
And soon after that, Butler was rejoicing at midcourt.
Mack scored 30 for the Bulldogs (25-9), who used a string of upsets to reach the championship game last year. Butler’s now won 11 straight overall and is 7-1 in its last eight NCAA tournament games.
The 30 points were two short of Mack’s career high and a Butler tournament record. He went 10 for 16, including 7 of 12 from three-point range.
Unlike Robinson, he got to laugh about a foul that never should have happened.
”It was the dumbest mistake of my life,” he acknowledged.
The Bulldogs will next face either Kansas State or Wisconsin in the Southeast regional semifinals. No matter what happens, it’ll almost certainly be tame compared to what Butler went through in Washington.
”You win two games by three points, it’s going to be pretty crazy,” Howard said.
In their tournament opener, the Bulldogs used a tip-in by Howard to beat Old Dominion at the buzzer. Then came this one, in which Butler blew a 12-point lead and had to rally from a five-point deficit over the final 10:37.
”We’re not better than Old Dominion. We’re not better than Pittsburgh,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. ”We just had the ball last.”
Pittsburgh (28-6) was seeking to reach the round of 16 for the sixth time in 10 years. Instead, the Panthers became just another victim of Butler magic.
Pitt’s made the NCAA tournament in 10 straight seasons, but never gotten past the round of eight. This team loses four seniors, including Brown, center Gary McGhee and guard Brad Wanamaker.
”Anytime we’ve lost in the tournament, there’s been no good losses,” coach Jamie Dixon said. ”We’ve just got to keep working harder and keep having great years and keep putting ourselves in a position that we’re in.”
Brown finished with 24 points, but he’ll forever remember the missed free throw.
”Everything could have been avoided if I make a free throw and Nasir doesn’t foul,” he said.
Robinson will probably never remember he scored 16 points on 7 for 9 shooting. He blamed himself for the loss, but his teammates didn’t.
”It’s not that he did it intentionally or anything,” Brown said. ”He’s a hard worker. He’s a hustler. He was just trying to make a play out there, trying to help the team win.”
The outcome might not have come down to that if the Panthers didn’t have a shot-clock violation with 10 seconds left. That was one their 12 turnovers, compared to six by Butler.
Pittsburgh trailed 41-32 before Brown drilled a three-pointer, Wanamaker made a layup and Robinson sank two straight layups to tie it with 15:24 left.
After a timeout, Wanamaker hit a jumper to cap the 11-0 run and give the Panthers their first lead since 4-2.
Soon after that, Pittsburgh reeled off seven straight points to go up 53-48.
To no one’s surprise, Butler wouldn’t go away.
If Mack was nervous about playing the Big East regular-season champions, it wasn’t evident by his demeanor during the Star Spangled Banner: He yawned.
Once the game started, however, the junior guard played with intensity and poise. Mack scored 16 points in the first half, sinking four threes, and the Bulldogs committed only two turnovers in taking a 38-30 lead at the break.
Because the 6-foot-11 McGhee clogged the lane when Butler had the ball, the Bulldogs opted to take their chances from the outside. Howard hit a pair of three-pointers, Mack and Shawn Vanzant also scored from beyond the arc, and Butler went 8 for 11 from the field in opening up a 20-14 lead.
Minutes later, Bulldogs reserve guard Zach Hahn connected from long range, Khyle Marshall jammed home a follow shot and Mack hit a three to start a 10-2 spurt that made it 30-18.
Brown then scored five points in an 11-0 Pittsburgh run that ended when Mack popped a three from the top of the key.