Woeful shooting costs Butler its second chance
Keep shooting, the Butler players told each other over and over, the shots are bound to start falling.
Not even close.
Pushed around inside and off the mark outside, Butler looked every bit the underdog. Forget the last-second heave. It was all those shots the Bulldogs missed in the first 39 minutes that cost them the national title for a second straight year.
''Without question, 41 points, 12 of 64 is not good enough to win any game, let alone the national championship,'' Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the Bulldogs plunged to title game lows in the 53-41 loss to Connecticut on Monday night. ''Credit UConn for defending the way they do, because I thought they challenged shots better than any team we've played all year.''
Butler's woeful 18.8 percent shooting was a worst in the NCAA title game, breaking a record that had stood since 1941. Its 12 field goals were the second-fewest made and the least since Oklahoma State managed nine in 1949. Its 41 points were 10 fewer than the worst showing in the shot-clock era in a championship game (Michigan had 51 in a loss to Duke in 1992).
Shelvin Mack, who averaged almost 22 points in the first five games in the tournament, was Butler's only player to finish in double figures - and he managed only 13 on 4-of-15 shooting. Leading scorer Matt Howard made his only field goal about 5 minutes into the game, finishing with seven points in 13 shot attempts.
It was Howard's fewest points since scoring six in the season opener against Marian, when he played only 23 minutes in a blowout.
''This one is pretty frustrating, just personally,'' the senior said. ''I wish, from my standpoint, that I was able to give a little bit more to my team.''
The loss was the first for Butler (28-10) since Feb. 3, snapping a 14-game winning streak. The Butler players didn't bother to hide their tears afterward, the sound of sniffles the only thing to break the locker room's silence. Ronald Nored's eyes were red, and he fought tears as he spoke. Shawn Vanzant sat all by himself at his locker, head down.
''Any time you lose it hurts, especially in the championship,'' Vanzant said. ''But to come this close and fall short, it hurts bad.''
The Bulldogs were hoping to erase the heartbreak of last April, when they came within a bounce of winning it all. Give little guys everywhere hope, too. After all, if a school with 4,500 students that plays in the Horizon League can win the national title, what's stopping every other team playing in the mid-majors?
Instead, Butler showed why basketball's biggest stage is so harsh for the little guys.
Butler had no answer for UConn's big men inside. Alex Oriakhi, Tyler Olander and Charles Okwandu all stand 6-foot-9 or taller, and they treated the paint as if it were their turf and the Bulldogs were trespassing. They shoved them, bumped them and generally made life miserable for anyone who dared come close to the basket.
''Matt Howard, we told Alex, that, that right there, that's your bone. You pick on that. You're the one that we want right now with him,'' UConn guard Shabazz Napier said. ''He played as hard as he can and disrupted a lot of shots tonight.''
When Butler did manage to get off a shot, the Huskies were there to swat it away. They had 10 blocks, and that UConn finished with a 26-2 edge in the paint was a surprise only in that Butler actually scored a basket inside.
''They guard you so well, when you start to get a few open ones, you're not feeling comfortable,'' Stevens said. ''We've done that to people on the other end. We've just never done it at that level.''
Despite its shooting woes and scoring droughts, Butler managed to take a 22-19 lead at the half on Mack's 3-pointer just before the buzzer. As the ball swished through the net, he turned and screamed at the Butler bench and did a flying chest bump with Nored as they ran off.
That would be about it for the highlights. After Chase Stigall opened with a 3 in the second half, the Bulldogs would make only one more field goal over the next 12-plus minutes.
It's not that they didn't have their chances, but the basket may as well have been a slit for as much success as they had.
''I don't know if anyone was getting real frustrated,'' Howard said. ''We kept telling each other, 'Just keep shooting, some shots are going to go in.' It just wasn't happening.''
Butler had struggled in earlier tournament games, yet always found some way to squeak by. The Bulldogs got a layup at the buzzer from Howard to beat Old Dominion in the opening round. An improbable foul and Howard's free throw in the final seconds got them past Pittsburgh, and Mack scored five of his 27 points in an overtime win over Florida.
But on the night it mattered most, the Bulldogs came up short.
''You just hope the shots go in,'' said senior Zach Hahn, who was 0 for 2 after giving Butler a big lift in the semifinals. ''That's how it's been all tournament. Whenever we needed a big shot, somebody came up with it. I guess we just ran out of steam.''