This was the final sequence of Saturday night’s NCAA tournament game between Butler and Pittsburgh in Verizon Center:
A conversation between the fouler and the foulee while the officials were checking to see where to set the clock.
A made free throw.
A missed free throw.
Another check of the clock.
A made free throw.
An intentionally missed free throw.
A desperation heave right that came close but would not have counted.
All of that took place in 2.2 seconds. Seriously. When the buzzer finally sounded and the dust cleared, Butler had — somehow — done it again, stunning top-seeded Pittsburgh, 71-70, to advance to the round of 16 in the Southeast Region next Thursday in New Orleans.
“That was crazy,” said Butler Coach Brad Stevens as he walked down the hallway to his locker room. This from a man who, if he had been alive when man first landed on the moon probably would have said, “Interesting stuff.”
This was one of those NCAA tournament games that felt special almost from the start. Eight minutes in, Pittsburgh had made 7 of 10 shots and trailed, 20-14. For the game, the Panthers shot 56.5 percent — and lost.
“We didn’t win these two games because we’re a better basketball team than Pittsburgh or Old Dominion,” Stevens said. “We won because we had the ball last.”
That’s true. Sort of.
The Bulldogs have a remarkable knack for shining when the spotlight is brightest. This is a team that lost early in the season to Evansville and lost twice to Wisconsin-Milwaukee. And yet, three weeks ago, when making the tournament was hardly a lock, Stevens said, “If we do get in, I think we might be a tough out for people.”
Pittsburgh can now attest to the accuracy of that statement.
Matt Howard, the curly-haired senior center who made the basket at the buzzer to beat Old Dominion on Thursday, made the game-winning free throw with 0.8 of a second left. Andrew Smith, Howard’s running mate inside, made the layup that put Butler ahead with 2.2 seconds left. But the central figure for the Bulldogs in this soap opera was Shelvin Mack, the junior shooting guard, who was the reason Butler had a chance to win the game and almost became the reason it lost.
“This has to be the craziest weekend of my life,” he said, able to smile when it was over. “I mean, talk about ups and downs. I committed the worst foul in Butler history and it turned out okay.”
Mack had kept his team in the game with white-hot shooting, most notably going 7 of 12 from beyond the three-point line on his way to a 30-point night. But with Butler up, 66-65, he had a three-pointer go in and out and then, several seconds later, made only 1 of 2 free throws. Pitt got the lead back at 69-67 on two free throws by Brad Wanamaker and then Smith made only 1 of 2 free throws with 1 minute 35 seconds left. But Pitt ran the clock down too far and didn’t get a shot off, giving Butler the ball back, down 69-68 with nine seconds left.
Just like Thursday’s final play, the ball ended up in the hands of senior Shawn Vanzant. Looking for Howard, he penetrated and, seeing Howard covered, he calmly found Smith, whose layup made it 70-69.
“About time I made a play,” Vanzant said. “I was terrible all night.”
That’s when a great game became an insane one. With both teams out of timeouts, Pitt threw an inbounds pass near midcourt intended for Gilbert Brown, who had been the Panthers answer to Mack (23 points to that moment) all night. As Brown chased the pass down, Mack came up to meet him.
“I was trying to make him pick it up to start the clock,” he said. “I got a little too close to him and got into a bad position and pushed him.”
As Brown tried to gather the ball in, he and Mack collided and the ball went out of bounds. Referees Antonio Petty and Terry Wymer — Petty trailing, Wymer on the baseline — both called a foul on Mack instantly as most of the crowd screamed in dismay.
“At first I was arguing,” Smith said. “But then when I saw the replay, it was a foul. Shelvin shoved him.”
“I asked Shelvin if he fouled him,” Howard said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I did.’ ”
While the officials went to the TV monitor to decide exactly how much time was left in the game, Brown — who was 8 of 11 from the field and, at that moment, 3 of 3 from the line — stood 15 feet from the basket, practicing his shooting motion. Vanzant was standing behind him.
“I felt defeated standing there,” he admitted. “The guy is a great player and he’d had a great night. I thought he was going to make them both. But I kept saying to him, ‘Come on, man, give us one, just miss one.”
Mack was standing in front of Brown in the lane.
“So, where you from?” he asked.
“Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,” Brown answered. “You?”
“Lexington, Kentucky,” Mack said. “I’ve got a 3.0 GPA.”
Before they could exchange phone numbers, the officials had set the clock at 1.4 seconds and were ready to play. Brown coolly swished the first one, tying the game at 70. But the second one rimmed out. Howard, with inside position, grabbed it as Nasir Robinson, who had also been superb for the Panthers (7 of 9, 16 points) tried to somehow reach over him to tip the ball in. Instead, he fouled him.
“I was really surprised when I felt him come across my arm,” Howard said. “I knew we had no timeouts left so I was trying to fling the ball towards the basket.”
Said Robinson: “It was a stupid play. I blame myself.”
Ninety feet away he was hardly a threat. Petty saw the contact and made the call. The officials checked the clock again, set it at 0.8 and Howard walked to the line where he coolly swished the first shot. Then he missed the second one on purpose. Wanamaker’s grab and heave were too late and Butler had done it again.
Even though they did not, by rule, have to speak to a pool reporter since the controversial calls at game’s end were judgment calls, the officials agreed to do so. All three, including lead official John Higgins, agreed that in both cases they had no choice but to call the fouls — regardless of time or score. Most people agreed: either you call neither foul or call both fouls.
“We aren’t blaming this on the officials,” Pitt Coach Jamie Dixon said repeatedly. “It was a great basketball game and they did a very good job.”
In a tournament always filled with extraordinary endings, this one went even further. When someone asked Mack if his teammates would let him off the hook for his foul since he had played so well the rest of the game, he shook his head emphatically.
“I’m a dead man walking,” he said.
Stevens nodded in assent. “Dead man walking,” he said, pointing at Mack.
Perhaps. But Mack and his teammates are still breathing and still playing.
The saga continues.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com