Butler’s unprecedented run to the 2010 National Championship Game seemed at the time like a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Now it seems like an annual event.
Butler defeated Virginia Commonwealth 70-62 Saturday night in Houston, earning the Bulldogs a second straight trip to the National Championship Game. Butler will play Connecticut on Monday night with a title on the line.
“We’re not going to settle on just getting back,” said senior guard Zach Hahn. “I remember the sour taste it left in my mouth last year, and I just think this group, we’re here now and we have a chance. That’s all you can ask for.”
Butler’s defense is the main reason they will get another chance to play for a national championship.
VCU took a 15-7 lead seven minutes into the game thanks in part to three three-pointers from guard Bradford Burgess. From that point forward, Burgess only made one more three-pointer as Butler adjusted their defensive approach and slowed down the pace of the game.
The Butler defense held VCU to zero fast break points. The Rams had been averaging nine fast break points a game in the tournament.
“Butler was the aggressor for the majority of the game. We had our runs,” said VCU head coach Shaka Smart.
The Rams set a record for most three-pointers made in an NCAA Tournament (61) but only shot 8-22 from the three-point line against Butler.
Butler’s guards Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant did an excellent job locking down VCU’s shooters.
VCU guard Brandon Rozzell, who had made 17 of his 35 three-point attempts in the tournament coming in to the national semifinals, was 0-3 from the three-point line on Saturday.
Senior point guard Joey Rodriguez only made one of his eight field goal attempts.
“Some of our shots didn’t fall. Open shots, shots we’d been making,” said Rodriguez. “I think if you go back and look at the tape, you’ll see some of them were in and outs. Almost felt like it wasn’t supposed to happen or something.”
On the offensive end, Butler rode second half hot streaks from two of their guards.
Hahn made two three-pointers and a layup in a 90 second span, helping the Bulldogs maintain the lead they took into halftime.
“[Zach Hahn] is not the most athletic guy in the world. He’s not the biggest guy in the world. But there’s a reason why he’s playing major minutes in the national semifinals,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens.
With 11:53 remaining in the game and Butler leading 44-43, Mack missed two straight free throw attempts. The misses seemed to motivate Mack, who soon took control of the game. Mack sank a three-pointer at the top of the key on the Bulldogs’ next possession, and kept going. Mack scored 10 consecutive points over a three minute stretch, giving Butler a 54-47 lead.
With three minutes remaining and the shot clock running down, Mack found Vanzant in the corner with a bounce pass. Vanzant then sank a three-pointer to put the Bulldogs up 61-54.
Mack led the Bulldogs with 24 points and made five of his six three-point attempts.
“[Shelvin Mack] is an incredible basketball player. He has a will and determination that’s unlike other guys,” said senior forward Matt Howard. “He many times carried this basketball team and that’s still playing within our offense. That’s what Shelvin is, he’s a great basketball player. Again, you saw evidence of that tonight.”
VCU’s loss ended a remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament. The 11th seeded Rams knocked off five opponents from power conferences, four by double digits, on their way to the Final Four.
Smart, who’s star has risen to great heights during the Rams’ run, said he thinks VCU can repeat their success in the future.
“Of course it’s not a once in a lifetime run. We’re going to try to do this every year,” said Smart. “It’s not easy, there’s no question about it. If we’re capable of coming together as a group and playing aggressive, confident, loose basketball, and we have the right guys out there, it’s certainly possible.”
Smart and the Rams don’t need to look far to see that history can repeat itself.
Butler lost to Duke 61-59 in last season’s title game. Gordon Hayward, now playing for the Utah Jazz, missed a half court shot at the buzzer that would have given the Bulldogs the championship.
“Last year we didn’t get it done, so that’s on the back of my mind,” said Mack.
On Monday night, Mack and the Bulldogs will have a chance to replace that memory with something greater.
I wrote this story in April 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.