Keeping Score

How Butler Missed, and Missed, and Missed, a Championship

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Members of the Butler team, after losing to UConn on April 4, 2011

Richard Carson / Reuters

After the buzzer sounded, confetti fell from the rafters of Reliant Stadium in Houston, marking a national championship won by the University of Connecticut. But people will quickly forget it.

That’s what happens when your opponent, during one 13-minute stretch of the second half, misses 21 of 23 shots. Butler missed 3-footers, 5-footers, 15-footers — every type of footer imaginable. Some missed to the side, long, and more than a few shots went in and out of the basket, as if some cruel invisible spirit were sitting on top of the rim, yanking points away from the Bulldogs. Did he have money on UConn or something?

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Miss. Miss. Miss. For the game, Butler shot 1 for 8 on layups. Afterward, as the celebratory paper poured onto the court, UConn’s 53-41 victory in the books, Butler’s student section stood silently, as if they couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed. Last year, Butler could have won the national title on Gordon Heyward’s half-court heave at the buzzer. Though that shot came tantalizing close to going in, everyone knew he was supposed to miss it. These misses, however, were inexplicable. Butler really could have won it this year, if they didn’t just … miss.  “It kills you to watch a game like that,” Matt Presley, a Butler sophomore, told NewsFeed as the Connecticut players danced on the court. “You get all your homework done so you can come see these guys, and they have one of those nights.”

On 2-point shots — you know, the ones fairly close to the basket — Butler was an amazing 3 for 31, or 9.7%. Overall, the Bulldogs shot 12-64, or 19%. Sure, UConn’s lengthy defenders did a nice job contesting many of the Butler shots. But the Bulldogs had plenty of clean looks at the basket. “We kept telling each other, ‘Shots are going to go in,’ ” said Butler senior Matt Howard, who went 1 for 13 in his last college game. ” ‘Keep shooting, shooting the shots you do, it’s going to be fine.’ “

It wasn’t. But UConn didn’t exactly torch the nets either. The Huskies shot 19-55 from the field, just 35%, including 1-11 from 3-point range. You knew things were bad when, at the end of the first half, the crowd got pumped after Butler’s Shelvin Mack made a 3-pointer to put Butler ahead, 22-19. We’re out of the teens!

In the locker room at halftime, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who now has three national titles, becoming just the fifth coach to win three or more championships, lit into his team. “If I told you what I told the kids at halftime, I would probably make one of those YouTube things again, when somebody asked me about my salary,” Calhoun told NewsFeed after the game. In 2009, Calhoun tore into a reporter who wondered whether a state employee should be making $1.6 million a year, and the rant went viral. “So I’m really not going to do that.”

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Calhoun, 68, recently came under fire when the NCAA cited UConn for recruiting violations under his watch. He’ll have to sit out three Big East games next season. “I took full responsibility for the secondary offenses that took place in my program,” he said after the win. “There were some people who felt it was a great time to take cheap shots. That was the only hurtful part. People I like. People I don’t know. You have to listen to who you respect.”

For most of the country, it was easy to root against Calhoun and UConn. But Butler let the game slip away. Afterward, the Butler locker room was a graveyard. At one point, a school staffer tried to shut the doors so the players couldn’t hear UConn whooping it up down the hall. Howard, who found ways to score throughout the tournament, slumped in front of his stall, towel draped around his neck, his right leg bloodied.

Someone asked about his future — the 6-ft. 8-in. forward has NBA potential. “I hope scouts didn’t watch too much of tonight’s game,” he said. When he saw the numbers on the stat sheet, he was shocked. “I didn’t realize it was that bad,” he said. “I really didn’t.” He put his hand on his chin and looked down; then he put the towel over his head and stared blankly across the room, all the color gone from his face.

Guard Shelvin Mack, star of Saturday night’s semifinal win over VCU, sat alone, cutting the tape off his ankle. He was the only Butler player to score in double figures against UConn, finishing with 13 points. But he was also off the mark, shooting just 4 of 15 from the field. He took a deep breath — “Ffffff” — before chucking the tape into the garbage and disappearing into the training room. Guard Roland Nored openly wept. “This one hurts so much,” Nored told NewsFeed. “This was the one we wanted to get really bad. It stinks to have it end like this.”

College basketball is cruel. If you’re a senior, your career can end in an instant. Butler’s seniors, including starters Howard and Shawn Vanzant, are leaving quite a legacy: two straight trips to the national title game, and proof that a school outside the power conferences can indeed go all the way. They helped change the sport.

“It’s hard because I’ve been with these five seniors for three years,” said Nored, a junior. “And you know, we spend a lot of time together on and off the court.” He gets choked up. “They’re done here,” he said, sniffling. “They are five of my brothers … those guys, what they’ve done for this program — I don’t think words can do it justice.”

See NewsFeed’s complete coverage of the NCAA tournament.