Final Four: Butler Does It Again

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Butler's Shawn Vanzant shoots as Virginia Commonwealth's Brandon Rozzell (32) and Bradford Burgess, left, defend

David J. Phillip / AP

With his team up, 58-54, with a little over three minutes left in its national semifinal game against VCU, Butler guard Shelvin Mack took a few dribbles near the top of the three-point arc, eyes in the direction of the rim, ready to school his defender once again. The whole building expected Mack to shoot. After all, he had scored 10 straight points during one second-half explosion, and nailed five out of his six three-pointers to finish with 24 points for the game.  He was motivated all night because, before the game, a teammate told him that a VCU player had talked smack about him. Mack kind of figured Ronald Nored was lying – and he was – but Mack still let this fake slight push his buttons.  “He was killer tonight,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said about Mack.

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So would Mack, a 215-pound truck of a point guard – the Butler media guide lists him at 6’3”, but he’s 6’1”, at best – shoot another rainbow three, or barrel his way to the basket. About 70,000-plus people in Houston’s Reliant Stadium, and millions more watching at home, wondered what type of shot he was going to take. Before Mack himself made this crucial decision, however, he glanced up at the shot clock. Six second left. And he noticed something else. Now two guys were on him. So there had to be an open man.

And at the last second, Mack found him. The scorer made the unselfish move, sending Butler back to the national championship. Out of his left eye, Mack spotted Butler senior Shawn Vanzant in the left corner, and tossed a perfect “skip pass” – the ball skipped the guy next to Mack, and flew across some three-quarters of the court, into Vanzant’s hands. Many coaches, especially at the youth level, warn against throwing such passes across the court. There’s just too much time for the defense to catch up to it. To put it politely, that’s crap. Just get the ball to the open guy, however you can. Vanzant made the catch, loaded up, and nailed the most important three pointer of the game. Butler went up seven, 61-54. VCU would never recover. Says Mack: “I saw Shawn knock that down many times. It was the right basketball play.”

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Butler is back, playing for the national title on Monday night. Butler, a team that lost its best player from last year’s team, Gordon Heyward, to the NBA. Butler, a team that lost five games in something called the Horizon League, to teams like Youngstown State, Wright State, and Valparaiso. Last year, Butler would have won it all if Heyward’s last-second heave, at the buzzer, against Duke was just a little softer. Now, the Bulldogs will try to take down UConn, who nipped Kentucky, 56-55, in the second semifinal. They’re ready. After knocking off VCU, there were no rabid celebrations. The team’s Bulldog mascot, Blue II, walked onto the floor and sat as instructed. Even the mascot was all business. The team calmly gathered around Blue II for the CBS post-game interview (guard Chase Stigall held his leash). “I told them I’m not doing the flying chest bump until we get through the weekend,” says Butler coach Brad Stevens, who is 34 going on 21, “in part because I’m getting older and it hurt the last time.” Ha. We all know the real reason Stevens is staying grounded. Now, only a title will get Butler flying.

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