Butler holds off VCU, earns second straight final

Posted: 03/04/2011 in NCAAB

Butler again! Bulldogs top VCU in Final Four


The Butler Bulldogs had the experience, and more importantly the size, to overcome the pesky VCU Rams, 70-62, in the Final Four behind Shelvin Mack’s 24 points and a dominant showing down low.

The NCAA Tournament’s version of the glass slipper was bound to fit one of these mid-major Cinderella programs, and Mack made sure it was Butler for a second straight year, hitting 8-of-11 from the floor and 5-of-6 from behind the arc.

The Bulldogs (28-9), the first school from outside a BCS conference to make consecutive Final Fours since 1990-91, also held a commanding 48-32 advantage on the glass, including 16 offensive boards to just six for the athletic but undersized Rams.

Butler will play for the national title on Monday against Connecticut, which gutted out a 56-55 victory over Kentucky in Saturday’s nightcap at Reliant Stadium.

VCU (28-12), which averaged 74 points per game in its incredible run through the Southwest Region, was led by Jamie Skeen’s 27 points, but the senior forward had little help elsewhere.

“We went deep into the tournament and we did what everybody said we couldn’t do. I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates,” said a somewhat satisfied Skeen. “This whole season was great. It was a great run.”

Neither team was expected to advance to Houston, but the Bulldogs won several nail-biters to capture the Southeast Region, while the Rams won a “First Four” meeting against USC to start a string of five straight wins by a combined 60 points, including a 71-61 victory over top-seeded Kansas on Sunday.

Saturday’s meeting was the highest combined seeding in Final Four history, with eighth-seeded Butler wearing the home whites against the No. 11 Rams.

Fittingly, the game was nip-and-tuck throughout, with Butler’s frontcourt, led by Matt Howard’s 17 points and eight rebounds, making the difference.

A flash of brilliance from Mack gave Butler the lead for good midway through the second half, as he scored eight points in less than two minutes. The junior guard hit a pair of threes then made a layup in transition for a 52-45 margin, the largest deficit the Rams had faced at that point in the entire tournament.

“[Mack] has a will and determination that’s unlike some other guys,” Howard said of his teammate. “He many times has carried this basketball team, and that’s still playing within our offense. That’s what Shelvin is, he’s a great basketball player.”

Smart called timeout and devised a play down low for Skeen, whose subsequent layup drew Howard’s fourth foul with 9:22 remaining.

Skeen missed the free throw, though, and the Rams couldn’t inch much closer with Howard on the bench, squandering several chances to make it a one- possession game.

The most notable missed opportunity came when Skeen answered Shawn Vanzant’s three-pointer with one of his own, only he got fouled by Ronald Nored.

The free throw could have pulled VCU within three, 61-58, but Skeen failed to convert the four-point play with 2:32 remaining, then had a contested runner fall off the rim the next time down.

Vanzant missed a jumper at the other end, but just as was the case for most of the game, Howard was in good position for the offensive rebound and got the putback to fall for a 63-57 lead with under a minute to go.

Darius Theus was off the mark for VCU, and the Bulldogs secured their 14th straight win at the foul line, giving them yet another opportunity to pull off a miraculous national championship on Monday.

“I think for the majority of the game they were the more aggressive team, and that made the difference. That was probably the biggest difference between this game for us and our last five,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said disappointedly. “Our guys fought and battled. I’m so proud of these guys … It’s really an historical run in NCAA tournament history.”

VCU’s Bradford Burgess hit a trio of three-pointers in the opening seven minutes to spark a 15-7 advantage.

“I was nervous as heck when they started making all those threes early. I thought our rotations were okay, but not probably good enough. But then our guys adjusted pretty well,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens said.

Butler responded by scoring off offensive rebounds on four of its next five touches, with Khyle Marshall’s tip-in tying the game near the midway point.

The fast pace slowed down, much to the Bulldogs’ liking as they held VCU to two field goals over the final five minutes of the half. They led, 34-28, at the break on Howard’s late putback.

Despite Skeen picking up his third foul a minute in, the Rams scored the first seven points of the second half and went up by one on a Juvonte Reddic jumper.

Mack answered shortly thereafter.

– Steve


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