The Butler men’s basketball team was the victim of its own demise in Monday night’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, making them the fourth team in NCAA history to lose consecutive title games.
The Bulldogs’ worst shooting performance of the season came against the No. 3-seed Connecticut Huskies, who defeated the Bulldogs, 53-41, in Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
Butler head coach Brad Stevens said on Sunday that Butler would have a shot to win if they played their best.
There was no shot to win in the end, as the Bulldogs played from behind for more than the final 18 minutes and never found a breakthrough moment or spark.
“We weren’t getting the loose balls initially, and that carried into the second half,” senior forward Matt Howard said.
Junior guard Ronald Nored repeated those words, saying that not getting the 50-50 balls was the difference in the game.
Butler shot 18.8 percent from the field—the worst ever in an NCAA championship game—and was unable to use rebounding or defense to overcome their poor shooting performance.
Whenever Butler got a stop on the defensive end, offensive plays rarely came to fruition.
Stevens said it was painful to watch the guys he cares about struggle in their biggest game.
“I told them I don’t care if they make shots and don’t love them any less because we lost,” he said. “You’re not always going to make shots, which is part of the game.
“Very rarely will you go 12-of-64, but UConn had a lot to do with that. The credit deserves to go to them.”
There may have been hope at halftime, when Butler led 22-19 despite shooting 22.2 percent from the field, but that hope quickly dissipated when it was clear Butler could not score in the paint and shot 16.2 percent in the second half.
“We kept feeling the shots would go down—that’s the belief we had,” Howard said. “It just wasn’t happening.”
Howard went 1-for-13 from the field, finishing with seven points and six rebounds.
“I wish I was able to give a little bit more to my team,” Howard said. “It was just one of those days, and it’s really frustrating now looking back at it, realizing we had our chances.”
Sophomore center Andrew Smith said it was awful watching Howard struggle to score.
“When you see a player like that, who’s had such a good career end like that,” Smith said. “He played as hard as he could and no one blames him for anything. Unfortunately, just like everybody else, he couldn’t put the ball in the hole.
“He’s played his heart out his entire career at Butler—something I’ve learned from him and will do in the future. He’s offered priceless stuff to this university.”
Junior guard Shelvin Mack—the only Bulldog to score in double-digits with 13 points—said he too was frustrated.
“We’re all upset about the game tonight,” he said. “We had chances and opportunities, and we let them slip away by not being solid.”
Mack was 4-of-15 from the field, with all four buckets coming from behind the arc.
“They’re a great defensive team,” Mack said. “They were tough and contested every shot we took—contested shots that people normally wouldn’t be able to contest.”
The defense was so tough that shortly after Butler made its 10th field goal of the game, UConn had its 10th block of the game.
Howard, along with fellow seniors Zach Hahn and Shawn Vanzant, finished their Butler careers with a combined 12 points and 14 rebounds.
Walk-on seniors Alex Anglin and Grant Leiendecker round out the five not returning next season.
“The seniors losing was the worst part about it,” Smith said. “To go out on a win with them would have been the most unbelievable thing because of everything they’ve offered to the university.
“Seeing them cry is hard to watch.”
Stevens, whose 117-25 record is the best four-year coaching start in NCAA history, said the emotions in the locker room were a true sign of Butler’s family bond.
“It’s a real locker room when the freshmen are crying,” Stevens said. “They’ve got three more years to play, but they are feeling for the seniors.”
Howard said he feels fortunate to have been a part of the senior class.
“This group has been able to do something that we’ve never done before,” he said. “It’s hard to put that into words right now because we wanted more, but maybe at some point, I can look back and be proud of what this group has accomplished.”
Sophomore guard Chase Stigall, who made three 3-pointers in the game, said he was already proud of the departing senior class.
“I know we’re going to be lifelong friends,” he said. “They’re going to go down as one of the best senior classes in Butler history, and I couldn’t be more thankful to be a part of these two years with them.
“We’ve lost five brothers today.”
Vanzant said he gave credit to UConn for their performance and that the loss hurt.
“I’ll remember being around [my teammates], the coaches and just being a part of this team,” he said.
Vanzant and Hahn both said the group was a special and unique one.
“This group of guys really believed in each other,” Hahn said. “That’s what made it so special, and I’m just proud.”