And it came down to one play and a little bit of luck.
ODU had fought back from a 58-52 deficit to tie the score at 58 after Bazemore made two free throws with 31 seconds left. Stevens opted not to call time out because he didn’t want to give Taylor a chance to change defenses. He put the ball in the hands of senior Shawn Vanzant and gave him four options: go all the way to the basket; pitch the ball to Shelvin Mack on the wing or, if one of ODU’s inside players came to stop him, find Howard or Smith inside.
“Pick your poison,” Stevens said.
Keyon Carter, who was guarding Smith, picked Vanzant, coming to help on him as he turned the corner.
Seeing Carter, Vanzant tried to pull up, but he slipped as he did. Knowing he was about to lose control of the ball, Vanzant threw it into the air.
“I read the play wrong,” Vanzant said. “I should have given it to Drew [Smith] a lot earlier.”
Stevens saw what Vanzant did a little bit differently.
“High IQ play,” he said. “He gave us a chance to do something.”
Hassell, who was on the weak side, saw the ball go up in the air and tried to swat it. But it went over his head, and Smith got his hands on it, tapping it in the direction of Howard.
“Because my guy [Carter] left me, I was all alone,” he said. “I didn’t think I had time to catch and shoot, so I was just trying to keep it alive. Somehow the ball got to Matt.”
Which, in the end, was exactly where Butler wanted it. If his coaches and teammates have a complaint about Howard, it’s that he is too unselfish.
“He catches the ball with his back to the basket; we want him to go with it and shoot it,” point guard Ronald Nored said. “His hands are so good he isn’t going to lose it. But he’s always looking to get everyone else involved. Sometimes too much.”
In fact, earlier in the game, Mack had grabbed Howard and told him, “You have to shoot the ball more!”
And so, with those remarkably soft hands, Howard caught the deflected ball and put it up in one motion. It rolled off the rim and in.
“It’s pretty easy,” Howard said, “when it’s just you, the ball and the rim.”
And the clock.
By rule, the officials had to check the TV monitor to make sure Howard had beaten the buzzer. Calm as ever, Stevens grabbed his players and huddled them up while the officials did their due diligence.
“I was sure it was good,” Stevens said. “I thought they might put time back on the clock, so I wanted to sub Khyle [Marshall] to guard the inbounds. You know, it’s celebrate, celebrate, celebrate, and I want to make sure we’re ready to play if we need to play. It wasn’t what you would call a crisp huddle.”
In the end, though, it didn’t need to be. The shot counted, and the clock was at 0.0.
Another wild day in the NCAA tournament had its first great finish. Butler will get another chance to play Cinderella on Saturday against top-seeded Pittsburgh.
The Bulldogs deserve that chance. So do the Monarchs. But only one group of hearts gets to skip a beat this time of year. The other ones just get broken.