Butler Bulldogs have run to savor in NCAA tournament, despite sour championship game

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Butler’s Chase Stigall as Casey Stigall.

Butler’s offensive futility was painful to watch during stretches of Monday’s NCAA championship.

Hamstrung by Connecticut’s defense and trying in vain to overcome a double-digit deficit with a barrage of errant three-point shots, the Bulldogs made just 12 of the 64 shots they attempted and fell, 53-41, in one of the more ungainly college basketball games in memory.

But after the confetti is swept away from Reliant Stadium and the Connecticut Huskies are fitted with NCAA championship rings, the Butler team that struggled so under the sport’s biggest spotlight should take nothing by pride in a season that, by any accounting, was remarkable.

As the Cinderella that came within two points of beating Duke in the 2010 NCAA championship, Butler, a close-knit bunch of overachievers from a campus of 4,500 students, was the darling of last year’s NCAA tournament.

But after they lost their star forward, Gordon Hayward, to the NBA draft, the Bulldogs were deemed irrelevant heading into this season. Butler, it seemed, would go down as a footnote in NCAA lore — a team of plucky lads led by an earnest young coach that inched one step closer than George Mason in 2006 to toppling the sport’s established world-order and proving that a school from outside the cabal of power conferences could win college basketball’s biggest prize.

While few paid any notice, Butler salvaged a season that two months ago was utterly undistinguished, hitting its nadir with a Feb. 3 loss at Youngstown State. After that, their third consecutive defeat, the Bulldogs held a players-only meeting, took a hard look at themselves and decided their effort wasn’t good enough. And they didn’t lose again until Monday — reaching their second consecutive NCAA championship game as a lowly eighth seed by toppling a No. 1 seed (Pittsburgh), a No. 2 seed (Florida) and a No. 4 seed (Wisconsin) along the way.

Monday on the elevated court plopped at midfield of the NFL Houston Texans’ domed stadium, Connecticut and Butler both got off to a horrible start, with the Huskies making two of their first nine shots and the Bulldogs just one of their first nine.

It was one fruitless possession after another at both ends of the court. Connecticut turned over the ball seven times in the first half, and Butler closed the period with a 6-0 run, capped by Shelvin Mack’s three-pointer with sixth-tenths of a second left, to take a 22-19 lead to the locker room.

Outscored in the paint 14-0 in the first half, Butler kept raining three-pointers in the second half while gagging on layups and clanging free-throws off the rim.

“We just kept telling each other, ‘Keep shooting! Some shots are going to go in,’ ” said senior forward Matt Howard, who scored seven points on 1-of-13 shooting. “It just wasn’t happening.”

And when Connecticut’s freshman Jeremy Lamb stripped the ball from Butler’s Mack and raced down court for a dunk that put the Huskies up 31-26, the momentum turned for the last time.

The final statistics were difficult to swallow for a team that takes such pride in not beating itself. Butler shot just 18.8 percent from the field — an all-time low for an NCAA tournament final — and was even worse from two-point range (3 of 31) than from three-point range (9 of 33).

“Without question, 41 points and 12 of 64 is not good enough to win any game — much less a national championship,” Butler Coach Brad Stevens conceded afterward.

Stevens had just come from the Bulldogs’ locker room, where he spoke with his players behind closed doors before reporters were invited in. The 34-year-old coach didn’t use the time to deconstruct Butler’s poor shooting or Connecticut’s effective defensive schemes.

Instead, he told each of Butler’s five seniors how proud he was of them and spoke about what each had contributed to the university and the team.

When he got to Howard, who has led Butler in scoring, rebounding and determination all season, Stevens said, “I don’t have time to talk about all you mean to our school.”

As Steven recounted the scene later, all around him Butler’s three freshmen wept — “bawling their eyes out,” as he put it — not because they had lost to Connecticut but because they wouldn’t have another chance to play alongside the seniors, Howard, Zach Hahn, Alex Anglin, Grant Leiendecker and Shawn Vanzant.

“They put as much into it as everybody else,” sophomore Chase Stigall said later of Butler’s despondent freshmen. “They lost five brothers today, so it’s just a very emotional time.”

Said Stevens: “As I told ’em, I don’t care if they make shots. I don’t love ’em any less because we lost. You know, they’ve been terrific. You’re not always going to make shots; that’s part of the game. Very rarely will you go 12 of 64. But U-Conn. had a lot to do with that. The credit goes to them. Our guys fought and fought and fought. For whatever reason, we just couldn’t make ’em.”

Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post, she has also covered five Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.
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