An exceptionally well-played game ended on two foul calls in the last two seconds Saturday at Verizon Center.
After the dust settled, Butler senior forward Matt Howard hit the game-winning free throw with 0.8 of a second remaining to seal the eighth-seeded Bulldogs’ 71-70 upset of No. 1 seed Pittsburgh.
It took a moment for both teams — as well as the shrieking crowd of Pittsburgh and Butler partisans — to grasp the outcome, because in a two-second span, it appeared that Butler had won, then Pittsburgh had a chance to win; then, with the score knotted at 70, the game seemed destined for overtime.
The wild sequence started with an official’s whistle a split-second after Butler’s Andrew Smith made a layup to give the Bulldogs a 70-69 lead with 2.2 seconds remaining.
After receiving the inbounds pass near midcourt, Pittsburgh’s Gilbert Brown was fouled by Butler’s Shelvin Mack, whose game-high 30 points had kept the underdog Bulldogs out front most of the game.
That sent Brown to the free throw line with 1.4 seconds left — Pittsburgh trailing by one — for two free throws. He made the first but missed the second, knotting the score at 70. But before the teams could gird for overtime, another whistle blew signaling a foul on Pittsburgh’s Nasir Robinson for contact as he battled Butler’s Matt Howard for the rebound.
And with 0.8 of a second on the clock, Howard made his first free throw and intentionally missed the second, handing Butler the one point that mattered most when the final buzzer sounded.
It was Howard’s second game-winning shot in as many games, following his layup against Old Dominion as time expired in the first round.
The cumulative result — with Butler winning two games by a total of three points — sent the Bulldogs into elite company once again, proving that there was more than pixie dust and serendipity behind their improbable run to last season’s NCAA tournament championship game.
“You win two games by three points, it’s going to be pretty crazy,” Howard said. “This is by far the craziest weekend of basketball [I’ve played]. This is the type of game you really play for.”
It was a heartbreaking end to the season for Pittsburgh (28-6), which boasted a senior-laden roster that seemed destined to reach the Final Four for the first time, having been stopped short in the region final last year.
“It hurts even more because it’s our last game,” said Brown, who led the Panthers with 24 points. “We’ll never be able to put the jerseys on again and go out and play with our teammates. This being our last game is really an emotional blow to us.”
Butler (25-9), dubbed “America’s team” by fans of the Horizon League upstarts from Indianapolis, advanced to face fourth-seeded Wisconsin on Thursday in the Southeast Region semifinals in New Orleans.
The question of whether either of the last two fouls needed to be called will surely be debated by basketball fans for some time. It had been a physical game on both sides, with each team being whistled for 18 fouls.
But Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon steadfastly refused to criticize the officials or even second-guess them after the game.
“We didn’t lose on one play,” Dixon said. “We lost through the entire game.”
Pressed further on the decisive foul calls, Dixon said: “We’ll never talk about the officiating in a negative manner. They did the best job. They should be proud of what they did out there; I think they did their best. But I think you want to call it consistently.”
John Adams, the NCAA’s national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, commented on the calls on TBS’s postgame show.
“I’ve had a chance to look at the plays as many times as you guys have probably,” Adams told the studio hosts. “They were both fouls. They tie in to two things we’ve been working on all year. We have a single point of emphasis, we enforce the rules as written.”
It was a physical game, marked by sweet shooting beyond the arc (Butler made a dozen three-pointers, with Mack accounting for seven) and roughhousing under the rim.
Despite the smaller stature of their lineup, the Bulldogs stayed in the fight on hustle and grit, forcing 12 turnovers and shooting exceptionally well at the outset to take a 12-point lead, 30-18. Still, Pittsburgh clawed back to pull within one before the break. But Butler stormed back, taking a 38-30 lead at the half.
Pittsburgh came out blazing in the second half and tied the score at 41 with 15 minutes 19 seconds remaining. The Panthers led, 69-68, with one minute left. Howard was short on a jumper, and Smith muffed the putback.
Pittsburgh then worked what appeared to be its last possession to a fault, but the shot-clock buzzer sounded before Ashton Gibbs could shoot a jumper. That put the ball in Butler’s hands with just less than 10 seconds — a lifetime, in this game — left to play.