Correction: This article incorrectly says that Florida’s Vernon Macklin fouled out of the game. In college basketball, players foul out on the fifth foul; Macklin committed four fouls.
NEW ORLEANS — Butler’s Shelvin Mack climbed the ladder on the New Orleans Arena floor, ready to cut his piece of the net after his team’s game against Florida. But before he performed the one action every college basketball player dreams of doing, Mack allowed himself one moment of bravado.
He turned to the screaming section of Butler fans, a bandage on his brow and a smile on his face, and did the Gator chomp — a fitting gesture for a player, and a team, that once again devoured the notion that mid-major schools can’t compete on this level.
A year after this tiny Horizon League upstart from Indianapolis made an unlikely run to the national championship game, Butler is headed back to the Final Four following a thrilling 74-71 overtime victory against Florida on Saturday in the Southeast Region final.
“It’s a lot better than last year,” said Mack, who led all scorers with 27 points. “This year, everyone just expected us just to fall off, a lot of people didn’t have faith in us. We went from being on the bubble to winning our conference to being picked to lose every game in the tournament. I would say we shocked the world again.”
The eighth-seeded Bulldogs became the first team from a non-major conference since UNLV in 1990 and 1991 — and the first from the hoops hotbed of Indiana — to make consecutive appearances in the Final Four. But this is wholly different from those Runnin’ Rebel squads, whose rosters consisted of flashy future pros.
Florida was bigger, faster and more athletic than Butler on Saturday, and the Gators led by 11 after the Bulldogs went close to 61 / 2 minutes without a field goal in the second half. But as has become the Butler way, the Bulldogs scratched and clawed their way back into the game, not with any sort of momentum-swinging run, but with gritty plays like snagging loose balls and grabbing offensive rebounds.
“Their will and their refusal to be denied really stood out,” Florida Coach Billy Donovan acknowledged.
Still, though, the Bulldogs’ win did not come without some tense moments. After six consecutive points from Mack pulled Butler to within 60-59, senior Matt Howard stepped to the line for two free throws with just 30 seconds remaining in regulation.
He made the first but missed the second, giving Florida’s Erving Walker a chance to win the game as the clock wound down to zero. But he missed an open three-pointer from the top of the key and the buzzer sounded to signal overtime.
In the extra session, Walker converted a three-pointer to give the Gators a 70-69 lead with less than two minutes to go. But Mack sauntered down the floor and, without hesitation, stole the advantage back with a three-pointer of his own. Butler would never trail again.
Florida guard Kenny Boynton (17 points) missed a three-pointer with 19 seconds left on the clock. Mack then provided the final cushion with two free throws, and when another Walker three-pointer clanked off the rim, the Bulldogs had done what many thought impossible. Except this time, the other team wasn’t even all that surprised.
“It’s not like it’s their first time here,” Florida’s Chandler Parsons said. “They were in this situation last year, so I think their experience helped them and I think they just came up with big plays when the team needed it.”
In those waning moments of regulation and overtime, the Gators likely would have preferred to go inside rather than settle for jump shots. Forward Vernon Macklin had his way all evening with the Butler defense, scoring a career-high 25 points, but he fouled out late in regulation.
Florida finished with 36 points in the paint, and went just 3 of 14 from three-point range.
But Butler Coach Brad Stevens had no use for what-ifs. His team had escaped with its third victory in this tournament by three points or less, and that was enough for him.
“We were lucky to advance,” said Stevens, who now has more NCAA tournament wins the past two years (nine) than Butler had as a school in the previous 48 seasons (eight). “We were lucky to beat Old Dominion. They could be sitting here, Pittsburgh could be sitting here. There’s no doubt, [they’re] great teams. That’s the tournament. It doesn’t matter how you win, you just try to play the next one.”
Nobody expected there to be a next one for this Butler team. The Bulldogs’ best player a year ago, Gordon Hayward, now plays for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, and two other key contributors graduated.
This, though, wasn’t about a particular player. This was about collective faith.
So there stood backup guard Ronald Nored amid his celebrating teammates. All of his points Saturday came on four clutch free throws in overtime — part of a 23-2 advantage Butler enjoyed in terms of bench points — and he guarded Walker as he launched those three-pointers at the end of regulation and overtime.
Nored said as each shot sailed through the air, all he did was hope — and scream — that they wouldn’t go in. Now, though, he yelled something else, a statement nobody imagined these Bulldogs would utter.
“We’re back, baby!”