Photos by Maria Porter
Video by Elyssa Garfinkle
For the second consecutive year, the Butler men’s basketball team will compete in the final game of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.
A display of resilient, focused play earned them a 70-62 victory over No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth (28-12). The win was a perfect representation of the program’s motto—“The game honors toughness.”
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“The way we look at it is this—we want to win,” senior forward Matt Howard said. “We don’t look at it as it’s a mid-major that wants to win. We don’t look at conferences. It’s about players, their system.”
Butler handled VCU’s full-court pressure and early scoring runs with poise, conferences aside.
“We said coming into the game it was going to be a possession game, and it was going to be something where we had to be great with the ball,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought we attacked the [full-court] pressure well.”
No. 8 seed Butler (28-9) had to overcome an early six-point deficit and sharp-shooting from the Rams, who scored 12 of their first 15 points on 3-pointers.
“I was nervous as heck when they started making all those threes early,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought our rotations were OK but not probably good enough, but then our guys adjusted pretty well.
“I thought we defended the way we wanted to.”
The Bulldogs also had to overcome 27 points from the Rams’ senior forward and leading scorer Jamie Skeen. Skeen was 10-for-17 in the game and also grabbed six rebounds.
VCU senior guard Joey Rodriguez was not as proficient from the field, shooting 1-of-8 for three total points.
But Rodriguez still managed to give Butler some problems, customarily dribbling into the lane and dishing out to Skeen or junior forward Bradford Burgess. Rodriguez finished with eight assists and two steals.
The VCU trio was not enough to combat Butler’s top three contributors, though.
Junior guard Shelvin Mack was nearly unstoppable on the hardwood, shooting 8-for-11 to total 24 points.
“Shelvin has a will and determination that’s unlike some other guys,” senior forward Matt Howard said. “Many times, he has carried this basketball team, and that’s still while playing within our offense. That’s what Shelvin is—a great basketball player.”
Howard spent a good portion of the night on the hardwood thanks to diving for loose balls and VCU fouls. When he was on his feet, Howard scored 17 and grabbed eight rebounds.
A key rebound and pair of points came with one minute remaining in the game after senior guard Shawn Vanzant missed a fade-away jumper. Howard freed himself from a defender, snatched the ball and laid it in with his left hand.
The well-timed play kept the Rams at bay by giving the Bulldogs a 63-57 lead and the cushion necessary to win the game.
“There’s a reason why [Howard is still] standing in all these tournaments, the reason why he’s playing and continues to play and play,” Stevens said. “He wins everything in practice, everything all the way throughout the year. It’s because of his motor and his non-stop will to succeed for his team.”
Vanzant was Butler’s third-leading scorer in the game with 11, nine of which came in the second half.
VCU was unable to regain a lead late in the second half for two reasons—they could not out-muscle the Bulldogs on the glass, and they struggled from the free throw line.
Butler out-rebounded VCU 26-16 in the second half and 48-32 overall.
Freshman forward Khyle Marshall was a large part of the Bulldogs’ efforts down low, grabbing nine overall with many coming on the offensive end to extend possessions.
VCU’s accuracy from the “charity stripe” was poor. The Rams were 8-of-13 at the line, and missed many opportunities to build a large lead early or climb back into the mix near the end.
The timing of the misses was more important than the misses themselves.
Senior guard Zach Hahn had incredible timing tonight, scoring eight points and dishing an assist to Howard in less than four minutes of play.
Mack said although he and Hahn haven’t always been able to knock down shots, staying positive was the key.
[We] are doing a great job of giving [Hahn] the ball where he can have success,” Mack added.
Butler will look to continue its teamwork against No. 3 seed Connecticut in Monday night’s national championship. Until then, Mack said Butler will rest and prepare for their opponent.
“We realize there’s still a game to be played, hopefully another game to be won,” Howard said. “That’s what we want to do, and we’re going to prepare to do that.”