The dream continues for Butler, UConn
HOUSTON -- For the record, Milan lost in the Indiana high school Final Four on its first improbable visit, in 1953. The Indians wrote the storybook ending the next year.
Just thought I'd point that out for everyone who has loved the serendipitous cross-pollination of "Hoosiers" and the Butler Bulldogs.
The similarities between the little Indiana school that spawned a Hollywood classic and the little Indiana school that has shanghaied the past two NCAA tournaments refuse to stop. Mostly because Butler refuses to lose.
After throttling fellow establishment outsider Virginia Commonwealth 70-62 in the Final Four semifinals, the Bulldogs are now 10-1 in the last two Big Dances. The guys from the Horizon League will play in their second straight national championship game Monday, one of the great feats in college basketball history. And once again they'll take on one of the biggest name brands in the game.
Last year it was Duke. This year it's Connecticut, which has two national titles and four Final Fours and a fresh set of NCAA sanctions to its credit.
Last year, a Butler half-court shot came tantalizingly close to going in at the buzzer and delivering the ultimate Cinderella story. While most of America was charmed by the story of Butler's journey, regardless of outcome, the Bulldogs themselves had every intention of winning that game.
The two-point loss to the lordly Blue Devils still burns in their guts. You could feel the burn Saturday night.
"I don't think I can possibly explain how much I want to do this," said Butler forward Matt Howard, the most artlessly beautiful player in college hoops. "The experience of being there, of being so close last year, I just can't explain what this chance means to me."
What it means is that Butler bounced out of Reliant Stadium on Saturday night very happy, but very focused on the final task.
"Don't think for a minute we're settling for this," said senior guard Zach Hahn, who had a stunning star turn against VCU. "We remember last year and our attitude is, 'We're here now, let's do it.'"
Thus a turbulent tournament boils down to a pair of nine-loss teams -- the most combined losses ever in a title-game matchup. Both traveled a rocky road in the regular season. One (Connecticut) finished ninth in its league. The other (Butler) lost to Youngstown State in February -- and the Penguins are ranked No. 295 in the RPI.
"This just tells you," said Butler hero Shelvin Mack, "you can play a whole season, have all the ups and downs, all the highs and lows, and you just don't know."
That's the truest statement of this entire tournament.
It's been true every jaw-dropping round, as the top seeds tumbled and the long shots advanced. It was true again Saturday night, when role players like Hahn and UConn point guard Shabazz Napier thrust themselves into the spotlight in a pair of taut semifinal games.
Hahn scored eight straight Butler points in the second half against VCU, hitting a pair of 3-pointers and an out-of-body reverse layup off the drive. When the standstill shooter made that acrobatic move, it put the Bulldogs up 44-43, and they never trailed again.
Until Saturday night, Hahn hadn't scored eight points in an entire game since Feb. 10. Yet with everything on the line in the Final Four, he took over the joint for a key stretch.
"There's certain guys that think they should be playing in these games," Butler coach Brad Stevens said of Hahn. "He's one of those guys. He just has a mindset of, you know, 'When I'm open, I'm going to make it. I'm going to take the big ones.'
"He's not the most athletic guy in the world. He's not the biggest guy in the world. But there's a reason why he's playing major minutes in the national semifinals. Just another great senior in this program."
It was a UConn freshman -- not star Kemba Walker -- who wound up with the ball at the most important moments in the Huskies' 56-55 victory over Kentucky in the second semifinal. Napier was the hero, then nearly the goat, then the hero again.
With the Huskies up 52-48 and looking for the knockout blow, Napier flashed to the basket with the ball and kissed in a reverse layup with 2 minutes and 30 seconds left. That looked like it might be enough to win -- until Napier gave the Wildcats a final chance.
Ahead 54-52 in the final minute, UConn was killing time. Kentucky coach John Calipari gambled and had his team play defense instead of fouling with an eight-second difference between the game clock and the shot clock. It wound up paying off.
Everyone in Houston, watching at home on TV and perhaps on other planets figured the ball would be in Walker's hands at the end of that possession. Instead, Napier tried to drive through traffic to the basket -- early -- and dribbled it off his foot.
Brandon Knight dove on the ball and Terrence Jones called timeout with 16.6 seconds left, giving Kentucky its chance to tie or win. During the ensuing timeout, Napier told coach Jim Calhoun, "I'll make it up next play."
He was good to his word. When Kentucky's DeAndre Liggins rose for a long 3 with six seconds left, it looked like it had a chance -- until it thudded off the front of the rim and came down in the hands of Napier.
He was fouled and made the two free throws with two seconds left that clinched the game for the Huskies.
"I thought Shabazz played great," Calhoun said, even though Napier was just 1-for-7 from the field. The reason why: his defense on fellow freshman Brandon Knight, helping hound him into a 6-for-23 performance.
"I think Knight is an absolutely magnificent player," Calhoun said. "But 6-for-23 is expensive."
So is 4-for-12 from the foul line, which Kentucky was Saturday night -- the second-worst free-throw percentage ever in a Final Four game. Everyone remembers the free throw failings of Calipari's Memphis team in the 2008 national title game, but the Tigers were 12-for-19. This was far worse.
"If you come in and miss free throws, a bunch of 3s, it's hard to advance," Calipari said.
Nothing makes it harder to advance than playing Butler. The Bulldogs are the smartest defensive team in America, perpetually frustrating opposing offenses. VCU is the latest victim.
In winning the Southwest Region, the Rams ran Kansas out of the gym in the first half. Rattled the Jayhawks into a near-total meltdown. Scored a bunch of easy baskets in transition, getting good looks inside and out.
Against Butler? VCU had zero fast-break points. The Bulldogs sprinted back on defense like their scholarship money depended on it, refusing to give up even one cheap basket.
That's how Cinderella sent an even bigger Cinderella packing. Now all Butler needs to do to make history is finish the deal Monday night, a year after coming so close.
When both semifinals were over, someone asked Calhoun whether he thought it would be good for the game to have a mid-major champion.
"I think starting in 2012, '13, it would be a wonderful idea," he said with a smile.
Residents of 49 states will disagree with Calhoun on that. They want the Milan storyline to repeat itself one last time.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- NCAA files intent to appeal O'Bannon decision
- UConn agrees to play Arizona, Ohio State
- Beavers' Baker in ICU; required defibrillator
- Lawsuit: Tulsa failed to protect woman from player