NCAA Tournament Final Four: Butler Does It Again with Bulldog-Pretty Effort
Are you ready for a short quiz of sorts? Here you go.
If you don't like Butler basketball, you don't like:
A. College basketball.
B. Sports and competition in general.
C. Any underdog, in sports or in life.
D. The movie Hoosiers.
E. Having your brackets decimated once again by this little school from Indianapolis.
Yes, "all of the above" would be an acceptable answer, as would "Mom's apple pie."
If you're reading this piece, you know what happened yesterday in New Orleans. Butler scratched, clawed and willed its way to a 74-71 overtime win over the favored two-seed Florida Gators.
Was it a beautiful performance? I guess that depends on your definition of beauty.
Do you enjoy in-your-face defense against bigger, stronger, more-celebrated rivals?
Do you relish watching guys boxing out, setting picks and diving for loose balls?
Do you like heady, tough-as-nails point guards (I'm looking at you, Shelvin Mack) who keep bringing it at both ends of the court despite playing on a gimpy left ankle (he rolled it in the first half) and with a bloodied, bandaged forehead (he couldn't remember what happened)?
If you like all these elements, then Butler is the Mona Lisa of college hoops, enigmatic smile and all.
With its victory over Florida, the appropriately-named "Bulldogs" were the first team to qualify for this year's Final Four. They were later joined by Connecticut, who squeaked out a two-point victory over Arizona.
Butler will next play the Kansas-VCU winner, while UConn awaits the victor of the battle between North Carolina and Kentucky. Unless VCU somehow pulls another stunner today, Butler will again be the underdogs and darlings of most neutral observers when Final Four play commences in Houston.
Yesterday's Elite Eight victory may have been Butler's greatest escape yet, especially since Butler had a lot of reasons to lose the game yesterday.
Florida outshot them from the field, 44 percent to 40.
The Gators made 18-22 from the charity stripe; Butler was a mediocre 17 for 27.
Florida only turned the ball over seven times; Butler coughed it up 10 times.
Butler only converted nine out of 33 shots from behind the arc.
The Bulldogs, clear underdogs and not having a great day, had every reason to pack it in against a team with three big, talented seniors on its frontline and a coach, Billy Donovan, who had been to the very peak of the mountain in 2006 and 2007.
But Brad Stevens and his players did not go down without a fight; a dog fight, if you will. A nine-point deficit with seven minutes to play against a very tough team was not enough for Butler to lose its iron will.
On this day, it did not matter that senior forward Matt Howard, who had provided the last-second heroics in the first two rounds versus Old Dominion and Pitt, did not have his best day (14 points and five rebounds in 40 gritty minutes).
It did not even seem to matter that Florida's 6'10", 245-pound forward Vernon Macklin was having a career day, gashing Butler for 27 points on 11-14 shooting.
Somehow, some way, Butler found a way to out-rebound Florida 36-33. Not a huge margin, but on paper, the Gators—with players such as Alex Tyus, who had 30 rebounds in his two previous games and 10 more yesterday—should have owned the glass.
Butler won because a little-known senior guard named Zach Hahn, who had only scored three total points in his previous three games, made two huge treys in the first half.
They won because guard Ronald Nored, although 0-4 from the field, played airtight defense on Florida's high-scoring Erving Walker, limiting him to eight points on 1-10 shooting.
The Bulldogs prevailed due to the efforts of six-foot senior guard Shawn Vanzant, who did all the little things, including knifing in between the trees for seven rebounds.
Then there was freshman forward Khyle Marshall, who had 10 points (including a monster three-point play in overtime) and seven rebounds in 21 electric minutes.
All of the individual contributions, all of the dedication to team basketball and all of the belief in a 34-year-old wizard of a head coach somehow put tiny Butler over the top in a game that they probably had no business winning.
Correction: I don't know exactly what that last cliché means.
Perhaps no other school in the country facing all of Butler's challenges would have prevailed yesterday. But Butler found a way to win because they are in the business of winning close, high-pressure basketball games, no matter what it takes.
And like them or not (are there still any holdouts?), I find it hard to imagine that anyone who loves sports would not admire the heck out of this team.
Whether or not they like bulldogs, or even the Mona Lisa.
For more information on Matt Goldberg's new books, other writings and public appearances, please email email@example.com or contact him via his Bleacher Report homepage.
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