Butler Bulldogs cannot be denied
HOUSTON -- The MVP of Butler's 70-62 win over Virginia Commonwealth didn't score a single point.
Ronald Nored launched five shots and missed them all, but without Nored, Butler might not be doing the unthinkable: playing in back-to-back national championship games.
The playmaker and lockdown defender for the Bulldogs scored his biggest assist hours before the game even tipped off, concocting a devious plan that ended up being every bit as critical as Brad Stevens' game plan.
As Butler gathered for its pregame meal, Nored leaned over to Shelvin Mack, the Bulldogs' best pure scorer, and told him that he had read that some of the Virginia Commonwealth players were dogging Mack, saying he wasn't anywhere near as good as some of the players they had already faced in this NCAA tournament.
"Yeah, it was a total lie," Nored said. "Nobody said that, but I'd seen that on a '30 for 30' about Reggie Miller. Marc Jackson told him some stuff, and Reggie went off. I figured if it worked for Reggie, maybe it would work for Shelvin. I mean, it couldn't hurt, right?"
Mack swears now that he knew it wasn't true, or at least that he figured it out when he went back to his room, Googled the information and came up empty.
But the notion apparently stuck in his head anyway.
Mack scored 24 points, including 10 in a row during a critical swing that gave Butler all the wiggle room it would need to win the April BracketBusters game and become the first team since Florida in 2006-07 to appear in back-to-back national championship games.
"Yeah, he totally made it up, but Ron's a good leader, so he does stuff like that all the time," Mack said. "I knew it wasn't true, but I don't know, I guess it motivated me anyway."
At the beginning of this season, most everyone agreed that a pair of players from one team would be one of the sport's biggest storylines.
Turns out it's Mack and Matt Howard. The former is Butler's all-time leading scorer in NCAA tournament games; the latter has played in more NCAA tournament games than anyone else.
Together, they are nothing shy of a force, a one-two punch built on equal parts talent and toughness. Mack is the brazen shooter, the guy who converted an NCAA-record 83.3 percent (5-of-6) of his 3-pointers against VCU.
Howard is the meat and potatoes, the guy who wears ugly socks and who left the court at the half with his shorts such a disaster that the drawstring practically hung to his ankles. Without another pair of No. 54s, the training staff made like quick Betsy Rosses to stitch them up well enough so Howard could wear them for half No. 2.
"I don't know how they did it; I mean, look at them," Howard said, unfolding the waistband of his shorts. "Pretty amazing."
The same can be said for Mack and Howard.
This pair has dragged a team that looked awful at the beginning of the season, and even worse after a February loss to woeful Youngstown State, back to the final game of the season.
Howard scored 17 to complement Mack's big night, and although Mack put the Bulldogs in the position to win, Howard delivered them to the Promised Land.
After Jamie Skeen sank a 3-pointer with 2:32 left, the lead Mack helped to build had dropped to 61-57. Skeen, who was sensational with 27 points for VCU, missed a chance to really make the Bulldogs nervous when he missed the free throw on the would-be four-point play.
A scoreless trip apiece for Butler and VCU later, the clock had wound under a minute when Shawn Vanzant's step-back floater came up short. Sophomore Andrew Smith got a fingertip on the rebound, and the ball fell into Howard's hands. He scored the bucket and secured the win.
"Right place, right time," Howard shrugged.
Which is what he always seems to say, yet Howard has made a career of being in the right place at the right time. He scored on a similar play to beat Old Dominion, sank the decisive free throws to beat Pitt and now this.
"They could put Matt Howard's face on posters at Butler for life right about now," coach Brad Stevens said.
Mack and Howard, with a huge assist from their coach, are why Butler plays the way it plays, why the Bulldogs win the way they win and why they're in another title game.
They are emblematic of what makes Butler so difficult to beat: You simply can't take those two players off their game nor can you take the Bulldogs out of theirs.
VCU came into the game outscoring its opponents by 90 points from the 3-point line. Butler tied them with 24. The Rams swiped 35 steals in their first five NCAA tournament games. Against Butler, they could pickpocket only three. VCU loves to push the tempo and force turnovers. The Bulldogs coughed it up just nine times.
In the past five games, Brandon Rozzell launched 35 3s himself. The Bulldogs limited him to just three from beyond the arc. He made none of them.
"They have smart players, and they know how to execute," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "They know how to win. They're not going to beat themselves. We knew that coming into the game. We just made too many mistakes."
And the Bulldogs never do.
Instead, they constantly find ways to win, sometimes calling on players previously appearing on milk cartons to do it. Against Florida, it was Chrishawn Hopkins coming out of nowhere to drain a critical 3.
Here, it was Zach Hahn.
In the span of two minutes, Hahn scored eight points in a row, draining back-to-back 3s and putting back a sweet reverse baseline drive to the hoop.
"I'm not much of a driver," the typically spot-up shooting Hahn joked. "But I saw a lane, so I took it."
He hadn't scored eight points in a game since Feb. 10 and had just nine in the Bulldogs' previous four NCAA games combined.
"This is a team sport, and these guys exude that," Stevens said. "There's not a selfish bone in their bodies."
There are, however, some pretty cunning ones.
"I think I pissed Shelvin off a little bit," Nored said. "But that's OK. It worked."
The Bulldogs must hope the schemer has another trick in his pocket.
The MVP needs another most valuable ploy for the most important game.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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