Brad Stevens powers his Butler program with equal parts keen insight and magic. The 36-year-old was the first in college basketball to hire a full-time statistical guru, but how else can you explain moments like this or this without mentioning the aura that seems to surround the Bulldogs every year?
So when Stevens gathered his players into a huddle and began scribbling a play onto his dry-erase board with two seconds left and Marquette holding a two-point lead, the moment contained the unmistakable feel of another patented hocus-pocus escape. Moments earlier, a Golden Eagles inbounds pass sailed out of bounds, turning it over to Butler with a chance to win. Clearly, Stevens had some pixie dust left in the satchel. The Bulldogs were given another life.
The ensuing pass went to senior Andrew Smith at the top of the key. He drove right, looking for space. Then he stumbled, his feet crossed up at the worst possible moment, only able to hoist an off-balance baseball pass at the rim. For a team that’s enjoyed so many last-second miracles in recent memory, this ending felt utterly uncharacteristic.
Saturday’s slate of NCAA tournament games mostly trudged along into the night. Teams blew out other teams, advancing to the Sweet 16. That’s about it.
Then along came Butler and Marquette, injecting a much-needed syringe of adrenaline into an otherwise ho-hum second round day, waking up an entire nation lulled to sleep by the Louisvilles and Michigans and Oregons.
The typically emotionless Brad Stevens went off on guard Rontei Clarke for some shoddy defense, then made this face before a timeout, either begging for a call or praying to the heavens for divine intervention. (It’s so good, Deadspin has a photoshop contest going on.)
Up 72-69 with 14.7 seconds left, Marquette tripped up Roosevelt Jones by midcourt, sending a 55.4 percent career free throw shooter to the line in a double-bonus situation. Jones sank the first. The second bounced off the front of the rim. In the ensuing volleyball-like scrum, Marquette tapped it out of bounds, giving Butler a chance for another wild March Madness win.
But Clarke, the team’s leading three-point shooter at 40.7 percent, tried to play hero and wound up airballing a hotly contested attempt from the left wing.
After Marquette made its free throws, Butler quickly snagged a goaltending call on a quick layup, setting up the last-second dramatics in a game already stuffed with them.
The third-seeded Golden Eagles now advance to their third straight Sweet 16 to face the winner of Illinois and Miami at Verizon Center. That is, if their pounding hearts can take much more.
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