HOUSTON — Virginia Commonwealth’s improbable romp to the Final Four came to an end Saturday, with the Rams falling to Butler, a team with an equal claim on the Cinderella moniker but a decisive edge in big-time basketball experience.
Behind 24 points from junior guard Shelvin Mack, Butler tamed VCU, 70-62, to earn its second consecutive berth in the NCAA championship game.
The Bulldogs, who lost to Duke in last year’s final, won Saturday by taking away what had been VCU’s biggest weapon in the NCAA tournament, its three-point shot, and clobbering the Rams on the boards — creating second and third cracks at the basket through a 48-32 rebounding edge, including a 16-6 advantage on the offensive boards.
Still, the victory won’t be enough for the Bulldogs to shake the underdog tag Monday night, when Butler (28-9) takes on Connecticut, which boasts two national titles, for the NCAA crown.
Despite Mack’s 24 points, no one came up bigger down the stretch than Butler’s senior forward Matt Howard, who re-entered the lineup with four fouls yet scored on a putback, grabbed a key defensive rebound and hit two free throws — all in the final minute — to seal the victory.
VCU (28-12), meantime, heads back to Richmond having achieved something deemed preposterous just three weeks ago, when its inclusion in the 68-team tournament was met with derision.
Said VCU’s senior forward Jamie Skeen, who led all players with 27 points: “It was a great run. We made history. We kept making history. We went deep into the tournament and we did what everybody said we couldn’t do. I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates.”
As the fourth-place finisher in the Colonial Athletic Association, VCU only squeaked in the NCAA tournament field — prompting howls of protests from prognosticators who said it wasn’t worthy — because it had been expanded from 65 to 68 teams.
But VCU’s 33-year-old coach, Shaka Smart, channeled the critics’ words to constructive end, making sure his players knew every disparaging thing said about them. And the Rams responded by toppling one tradition-steeped athletic power after another — Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and No. 1 seed Kansas — to reach Saturday’s semifinal.
Butler, a team from another mid-major conference, traveled the same improbable road last year, toppling a No. 1 and 2 seed en route to the title game. Like Smart, Butler’s 34-year-old coach, Brad Stevens, is well versed in the art of convincing largely overlooked players that they can do the impossible.
Saturday at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, Butler was the better, more composed team.
The Bulldogs took the Rams out of their fast-paced offense midway through the first half and, with the lead in hand, fended off VCU’s late charge with poise.
Stevens said VCU’s run to the semifinal inspired his team.
“The way they played, the way they beat a lot of unbelievable teams handily was remarkable,” Stevens said, “and probably made them the hottest team in the tournament.”
Smart struggled to hold his emotions in check afterward, acknowledging, “This one really stings.”
But he saluted Butler for seizing the role of the aggressor — a role reversal that Smart suggested made the difference in the outcome. And he spoke with pride about the heart and effort of his players, who regrouped after losing four of their last five regular season games to go on their NCAA tournament tear.
“Our guys did a great job of sinking their teeth into” the criticism that they were unworthy, Smart said. “And it brought our team closer together, brought our players really tight.”
The best matchup was in the front court, where Howard squared off against Skeen. Skeen had the upper hand early on, but the Rams started piling up fouls and Butler crept back in contention from the free throw line.
Howard didn’t make his first field goal until just 31.2 seconds remained in the first half, but he did plenty of damage from the line, connecting on 7 of 8 attempts.
Meantime, the Rams turned over the ball five times in the final four minutes of the half.
Butler took a 34-28 lead to the break, having scored nearly one-third of its points (11 of 34) from the free throw line.
The Rams opened the second half with a 7-0 run, and the lead rocked back and forth from there.
Zach Hahn came off the bench for Butler to score eight points in a spurt. Then Mack got hot, hitting two three-pointers and a layup to give Butler a 52-45 lead with 9 minutes 40 seconds remaining. The seven-point deficit was the biggest VCU had faced all tournament.
Then, in a matter of seconds, Howard was called for his fourth foul and sat.
VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez, held scoreless until that point, made a three-pointer to cut Butler’s lead to 54-50 with 8:32 left.
But the Rams couldn’t close the gap, forcing too many shots and committing too many rash fouls.
Howard re-entered the game with Butler leading 58-54. His play late in the game, along with a three-pointer by Shawn Vanzant with 3:04 left, all but clinched it, giving the Bulldogs a 61-54 lead.