HOUSTON — For Butler, the slipper still fits!
Though Virginia Commonwealth tried its mightiest to jam it on, Butler refused to relinquish its hard-won footwear, proving there’s only one ultimate underdog at the NCAA tournament and it remains the small private school from Indiana.
The Bulldogs are in the championship game for the second year in a row after a 70-62 national semifinal victory over VCU, ending one underdog story for the ages and continuing another.
Butler will have a chance to avenge its loss to Duke a year ago, Monday, thanks to, who else, stars Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard.
Mack scored 23 points - including 10 straight for Butler at one pivotal point - and Howard shook off a foul-plagued, poor-shooting effort to come through when it counts for what seems like the 10th time these past two tournaments.
“VCU has a lot to be proud of,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens accurately.
"(Their) run was inspiring to a lot of people, including us. They played terrific all the way through. We were fortunate to pull that one out.”
Jamie Skeen was outstanding with 27 points for VCU, but it wasn’t enough.
VCU played its game, but unfortunately for the Rams, so did Butler.
As expected, the Rams used pressure defence to force the Bulldogs into turnovers early in each half, but could not keep up that frenetic pace for the entire match, allowing the Bulldogs - who love close, hard-fought battles - to seize control and the win.
VCU pressed Butler into the ground when they had a full tank of gas, rattling Butler into a slew of turnovers, but no team can keep up that pace and effort, especially not one that had to win a record five games just to make it to the Final Four.
Butler’s 48-32 edge on the boards - 16-6 on the offensive glass - was also a major factor.
Just as important? The fact that VCU could not nail a ridiculous amount of threes as has been its custom at this tournament. Just four in each half for a team that needs 10+ treys to win won’t get it done.
The Bulldogs are a scrappy, defensively-sound outfit and they kept the Rams from driving into the paint. It was either post-ups - usually for Skeen - or threes for VCU, with Skeen doing the bulk of the damage. Skeen and Bradford Burgess tallied 21 of VCU’s 28 points at the half while Mack and Howard had 22 of Butler’s 34.
“It’s been a phenomenal run that we’ve had,” said VCU head coach Shaka Smart.
“Tonight we didn’t have our best and Butler had a lot to do with that. For the majority of the game they were the more aggressive team, and that was probably the biggest difference between this game for us and our last five.”
Mack had all the answers for Butler, shooting 5-of-6 from deep and 8-11 overall.
Butler survived an 11-0 VCU run early and ended the first half on a 27-13 run of its own to somehow come away with the lead despite missing 20 of its first 30 shots.
The Bulldogs wilted again early in the second as VCU upped the pressure, but Mack went to work, hitting from all over the floor, leaving spectators shaking their heads.
Only the third No. 11 seed ever to reach the Final Four, VCU made history by being the first team to win five games to make the Final Four.
“It was a great run, we made history,” said a disappointed Skeen.
“We kept making history. We went deep into the tournament and we did what everybody said we couldn’t do.”
But Butler, amazingly, has done the same.
Back in the title game despite losing top player Gordon Hayward to the NBA and having overcome a lackluster 6-5 start in the middling Horizon Conference, Stevens’ club has returned to the only game that matters.
The Bulldogs survived in the first round on a Howard tip-in and won another game by a single point along with two others by seven or less.
The team hounds opponents into poor shooting and uses its sneaky size advantage and ability to get inside position to tremendous advantage on the boards.
Just like a year ago, it will be incredibly difficult to pull off that all-important final win.
But at some point, you just have to start believing in this incredible story.
Mack knows Butler has unfinished business.
“Last year we didn’t get it done and that’s in the back of our minds,” he said.
“Nobody comes to (the Final Four) for two games, we came here for one.”
One more game, one more win, and this Cinderella story finally has its fairy tale ending.