This time Matt Howard didn’t need any prodding from his teammates to shoot the basketball. There was no time to even think about finding an open teammate. So he grabbed the loose ball, tossed it in the direction of the rim and hoped.
“When the shot went in, I was shocked,” he said. “I was praying to God the red light had come on. When I saw the replay, I went from shock to hurt. I felt like I had been stabbed in the heart.”
Hassell’s shock and hurt are the essence of the NCAA basketball tournament. So is the joy that Howard and his Butler teammates felt after escaping with a 60-58 victory just when it appeared that overtime was inevitable.
In the end, once all the bracketology finally stops and the games begin, the NCAA tournament is so good that even the NCAA can’t ruin it. The players rescue these three weeks by playing so hard and caring so much.
“There’s not a guy in our locker room who wouldn’t like to still be playing — today and beyond,” ODU Coach Blaine Taylor said. “That was a man’s game out there, not a boy’s game. There’s only one team that doesn’t end up feeling like this every year. That’s the magic of the tournament. It will give your heart an extra beat, and it will break your heart too.”
Old Dominion couldn’t throw the ball into the Potomac River from a rowboat most of the game (16 of 45 from the field), and Butler couldn’t stop putting the Monarchs on the foul line. (The Monarchs shot 27 free throws to the Bulldogs’ 11.) Neither team led by more than six points all day and each time Butler pushed the margin to that point, Old Dominion came right back.
“We’re only 40 minutes into the NCAA tournament, but I think it’s fair to say we’re tournament-tested after that game,” Butler Coach Brad Stevens said, smiling. “I guess you can say this was one of those 8-9 matchups that played out exactly the way you would expect it to.”
The only surprise in the way the game played out might have been Butler’s offensive rebounding. Old Dominion led the nation in rebounding margin during the season, so the fact that Butler had 18 offensive rebounds to ODU’s 13 caught most in the game a little bit off guard. Everyone who watched last year’s NCAA tournament knew all about Howard, the hard-nosed kid with the soft hands, but didn’t know very much about sophomore Andrew Smith and little-used junior Garrett Butcher. Their play inside allowed Howard to make his play inside on the game’s final play.
“Those guys were just tremendous all day,” Howard said. “You look at Garret with five offensive rebounds in 13 minutes. That was huge.”
Smith had 11 points and six rebounds and took a critical charge on Kent Bazemore with Butler clinging to a four point lead and under five minutes to play. As he and Bazemore went down, Bazemore’s elbow caught Smith just above the eye, cutting him and leaving him a little bit dazed.
“I had a concussion early in the season, so I know what it feels like,” he said. “I knew this wasn’t that bad. I was looking to see what the official called, and when I saw him give the charge signal, I felt great. Then I realized that my head really hurt.”
As Taylor said, this was a man’s game.
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.