There were multiple momentum swings, with the lead changing hands 21 times. Neither team led by more than six points. Both played unselfish offense and spirited defense. And the outcome was decided by a buzzer-beater that sent the better team, at least on this afternoon, on to the next round in the Southeast Region.
After Butler’s Shawn Vanzant stumbled as he lofted a potential game-winner, the rebound plopped in the hands of teammate Matt Howard, whose layup as the buzzer sounded gave the Bulldogs a 60-58 victory.
“It’s pretty easy when it’s just you and the ball and the rim, throwing it in,” said Howard, playing down his heroics after finding himself unguarded at the critical split-second.
Butler, a school of just 4,500 in Indianapolis, captivated college basketball fans last season with its improbable run to the NCAA championship game, toppling perennial powers Michigan State, Kansas State and Syracuse before falling to Duke, 61-59, in a thrilling final.
This season’s edition of the Bulldogs lacked the same bite after top scorer and rebounder, Gordon Hayward, bailed for the NBA following a brilliant sophomore season.
While Butler was seeded just ahead of ODU, most prognosticators viewed the ninth-seeded Monarchs as the favorites, particularly given their status as the nation’s top rebounding team.
After a seesaw first half, Butler took a 51-50 lead with 7 minutes 25 seconds remaining on a layup by Howard, who finished with 15 points. He made a pair of free throws to extend Butler’s lead to 58-52 with 2:43 left.
With fans of both teams on their feet, ODU stormed back, led by senior forward Frank Hassell, who made a pair of field goals. After getting fouled by Vanzant, Kent Bazemore knotted the score at 58 from the free throw line with 31 seconds remaining.
Butler had the last possession. Coach Brad Stevens considered calling timeout but decided to let his Bulldogs play on.
The game-wining play wasn’t anything he drew up or even envisioned, but it was brilliant in its improvisation. And it ended ODU’s season at 27-7.
Hassell said he was shocked when he saw the ball go through the basket.
“I was praying to God that red light came on before the ball left [Howard’s] hand,” said Hassell, who finished with a game-high 20 points. “When I saw the replay [that] it didn’t, the shock turned to hurt, like somebody had stabbed me in the heart.”
Both teams arrived in Washington on nine-game wining streaks and bearing their respective conference crowns, with Butler defeating Milwaukee for the Horizon League championship and ODU claiming the Colonial Athletic Association title over Virginia Commonwealth.
After falling behind 18-13, Butler retook the lead on a three-pointer by Vanzant that made it 22-21.
The lead rocked back and forth, with guard Shelvin Mack keeping Butler in it by slashing to the basket on one play and hitting from three-point range the next. The Bulldogs also started attacking the boards to create second and third shots.
Hassell tied it at 27 with 1:12 to play in the first half and got a putback to give the Monarchs a 29-27 lead at the break.
Butler’s Andrew Smith hit three shots early in the second half to put Butler up, 36-35, but he picked up his fourth foul with 15:56 still to play in a fruitless effort to deny Hassell, who converted the three-point play that reclaimed the lead for ODU.
Butler went up 49-43 during a sequence that saw Hassell fail to finish a dunk and Garrett Butcher get a putback for the Bulldogs.
Darius James’s three-pointer stopped ODU’s slide, but with multiple chances to retake the lead, the Monarchs’ scoring went south.