The look on Butler coach Brad Stevens’ face much of Monday night was telling.
It was a grimace of disbelief as he watched his eighth-seeded team miss shot after shot after shot in a ragged 53-41 loss to third-seeded Connecticut in the NCAA national championship game.
The misfires came nearly every way possible. Short-armed layups, blown wide-open jumpers and rimmed out 3-pointers.
And with each, all Stevens could do is grimace as Butler shot a putrid 18.8 percent, hitting just 12 of its 64 field-goal attempts, the worst shooting percentage in an NCAA title game. That included making only 3 of its 31 shots from inside the 3-point arc and having 10 shots blocked by Connecticut’s lengthy defense.
“You’re not always going to make shots,” Stevens said. “That’s part of the game. We’ve just never done it at that level.”
It was the second straight cruel ending for Butler in the national championship game. Last year, the Bulldogs had a half-court shot rim out at the buzzer that would have beaten Duke.
“It’s definitely worst the second time around,” sophomore center Andrew Smith said. “You feel like when you get a second chance that you need to make the most of it.”
From the outset Monday night, Butler’s shooting was a struggle. The Bulldogs missed 12 of their first 15 shots, which included five misfires by senior guard Shawn Vanzant, but they still led 13-11 with 10:20 left in the first half.
“When you have open looks and they just don’t go down, there’s nothing you can do,” sophomore guard Chase Stigall said, “but just keep shooting the ball.”
But despite making just one field goal that wasn’t a 3-pointer in a 6-of- 27 effort from the field, Butler actually led 22-19 at halftime after junior point guard Shelvin Mack made a 3-pointer to end the first half.
“We went in knowing we could play better,” said Mack, who had a team-high 13 points on just 4-of-15 shooting. “We wasn’t satisfied just being up three. A few plays could have changed the outcome of the game in the first half.”
Yet Butler’s shooting ended up being even worse after halftime. It started off promising when Stigall made a 3-pointer on the first possession of the second half to put the Bulldogs ahead 25-19, their largest lead of the game.
That optimism though quickly faded to more grimacing by Stevens because Butler failed to make a field goal for a little more than the next seven minutes until Vanzant made a jumper with 12:32 left.
By then, Connecticut led 33-28 and pushed its lead to nine with a pair of free throws and a layup, while Stigall missed a 3-pointer and Smith missed a layup on back-to-back possessions.
“When you see so many good looks bounce off the rim, you get frustrated,” said Smith, who had five points on 2-of-9 shooting.
Smith’s shooting woes got so bad in the second half that he opted against taking an open layup and passed the ball out for a 3-pointer.
“UConn was a lot of the reason why we shot so poorly,” senior guard Zach Hahn said. “They really contested shots and blocked a lot of our shots down low.”
Connecticut’s length inside was particularly a problem for 6-foot-8 Howard, who scored just seven points on 1-of-13 shooting. It was his lowest total since he had six points in a season-opening blowout.
“We kept telling each other, ‘Shots are going to go in, keep shooting, shooting the shots you do, it’s going to be fine,’” Howard said. “You know, I don’t know that I could tell you that we shot as poorly as we did. It was pretty bad.”
As Stevens walked with Mack to a news conference after the game, he tried to console his captain, who choked back tears. He patted him on his back and whispered in to his ear.