In an excruciating night for Butler, the ball just would not go in (cont.)
Anyway, the first half ended, and everybody went into the locker room, coaches did a little yelling, and everything figured to settle down in the second half. It did settle down a bit for Connecticut.
Only for Butler, it did not settle down. The opposite. Stigall made a three-pointer on the Bulldogs' first possession to give them a six-point lead. And Butler then missed 22 of its next 23 shots. I've never seen anything quite like it. Yes, Connecticut's defense was intense. The Huskies blocked 10 shots during the game, and it seemed like they ALMOST blocked another 10. Their length -- especially the length of Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi -- left the Butler players gasping for air. They often could not get the ball to the basket.
But some of those 23 shots were very good looks, too. And they missed them plainly and badly. "I think what happens in a game like that," Butler coach Brad Stevens said, "is they guard you so well, when you start to get a few open ones, you know, you're not feeling comfortable." Stevens knows this -- he has seen it happen to other teams. Just Saturday, his team defensively clamped down on VCU. And VCU was so on edge, that its players must have missed seven or eight open layups.
On Monday, the Butler players kept encouraging each other to keep shooting. They knew this couldn't last for long. The slump will end. The shots will start dropping. The game was still in play throughout the 22 of 23 misses. Connecticut missed a lot, too. Walker was 5-for-19 in the game. Howard said: "We kept telling each other, 'Shots are going to go in. Keep shooting. Keep shooting the shots you do. It's going to be fine.' "
Only it wasn't fine. It never became fine. The shots never did start dropping for Butler. Connecticut built its lead to seven ... then nine ... then 11 ... and then the Bulldogs had to get desperate, try a more aggressive defense, and that had no chance of working against the quicker Huskies with their great guards. With about five minutes left, Connecticut led by 14 -- which in this kind of game was like leading by 50.
Sure, it was a horrible and painful way for the run to end for Butler.
In many ways, this was the opposite of the Dallas TV season that, in the final show, turned out to be a dream. It was like Butler's two-year dream sequence ended with a nasty splash of reality. When this game ended, people kept asking Stevens and his players if they could keep perspective -- Butler reaching back-to-back national championship games is the most remarkable story in the history of the tournament. But there was no perspective, not yet, not just minutes after shooting 18.8 percent in a national championship game. "Maybe in a couple of months," Stevens said.
The final shot is the one that stays with me -- the game is already decided, Connecticut players are already beginning their celebration, and Butler is trying to score because that's what you do when the clock is still ticking. Howard misses a three-point shot. There is nobody in college basketball quite like Matt Howard -- a first-team Academic All-American (second year in a row), a team leader, a member of his league's all-defensive team, a member of his league's all-conference team, a member of his league's all-tournament team four years in a row. "Matt never took a day off in four years," Stevens would say after the game ended, and though Stevens was clearly trying to keep it together this was the one time his voice cracked.
"6 a.m. practice after 6 a.m. practice, that kid never took one day off."
Butler manages to get the rebound, the ball is kicked out to Hahn, a very good shooter, and he misses a three pointer. The clock is down to 10 seconds. The confetti machine is warming up. Howard fights and gets the ball back. And he takes the shot, the last shot of the game, the last shot of his college career. The ball is in the air. Is it too much to ask that this one time, on this harsh night, the ball goes in?
Is that really too much to ask?
On this night, yes, it is too much to ask. The ball misses just like all the rest. Connecticut grabs the rebound, throws the ball up in the air, and its players celebrate their glorious season. "We're the best team in America," Walker said. Butler's players cry. Matt Howard tells everyone he let his team down. The ball didn't go in. The ball just would not go in.
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