It was there for the taking. And the crowd of 7,500 inside Hinkle Fieldhouse, the fans who did not migrate south to Houston, knew it.
Junior guard Shelvin Mack drained a 3-pointer to beat the halftime buzzer and sent the Bulldogs into the locker room up, 22-19.
The Butler faithful cheered wildly, recognizing that their beloved Bulldogs were a mere 20 minutes from capturing college basketball’s most heralded and elusive title: national champion.
It was certain that Butler, a team known for having strong second halves, would improve upon its 22 percent first half shooting and pull away from the UConn Huskies, righting the wrongs left by last year’s heartbreaking loss to Duke.
And then it happened—31 of Butler’s 37 second half shot attempts fell off the mark. Consequently, the Bulldogs fell out of contention, leaving Butler fans across the country stunned.
Not many people foresaw Butler advancing to its second consecutive Final Four, especially after losing sensational sophomore Gordon Hayward to the NBA Draft. Out of the 15 million households that watched the game’s telecast, no one foresaw the Bulldogs shooting 19 percent on the biggest stage in college basketball.
Seniors Matt Howard, Zach Hahn and Shawn Vanzant, playing in their final collegiate game, shot a collective 3-of-25 en route to a 53-41 loss on Monday in the national title game.
The last time the Bulldogs scored fewer points in a game was during a 51-39 loss at Wright State Jan. 3, 2004. Prior to Monday night, Butler had been held under 50 points just four times in the past seven seasons.
It was Butler’s worst performance in recent memory and it happened to come in arguably Butler’s most important game in school history.
The faces of this year’s team, Howard, Mack and head coach Brad Stevens, all remarked that the team simply could not make shots. It was clearly a disappointing and uninspiring end to what was otherwise a remarkable run.
As Howard, who ranks third on Butler’s all-time scoring list, leaves the program, the contributions of him and his fellow seniors should not be forgotten.
The 117 wins by the outgoing senior class, consisting of Howard, Hahn, Vanzant, Grant Leiendecker and Alex Anglin, is the second most of any class in Butler men’s basketball history.
Over the past four seasons, these five have helped lead the Bulldogs to four Horizon league regular season championships, three Horizon League tournament championships and four NCAA tournament appearances.
More than that, they have helped put Butler University on the map as more than just a school that perennially fields a solid basketball team, but also as an upper-echelon academic institution.
Howard, a finance major with a 3.77 GPA was named this year’s NCAA Division I Academic All-American of the Year.
Butler athletics have embodied “The Butler Way” for decades. However, these past two basketball squads, both finishing as national runners-up, have raised awareness of Butler’s mission and have elevated Butler onto the national stage as a première academic and athletic institution.
A 12-point loss in the national title game is heartbreaking, yes—almost as heartbreaking as a 2-point loss that was decided by fractions of an inch.
It might be years before another Butler team advances to a national semifinal. On the other hand, it might only be another calendar year.
Yet, some things, such as Butler’s national perception, are now here to stay.