Game Notes: Butler vs. Pittsburgh
Endings don’t get any wilder than this.
by Aaron Kaplowitz
Two seconds in March. That’s all it took.
Crammed into two stupefying seconds in March, a hero became a goat became a hero, a winner turned into loser turned into winner, and everything we thought we knew about March Madness was flipped on its head.
In the matter of two seconds—well, 2.2 to be exact—four points were scored, the ball changed hands four times, two inexplicable fouls were committed, two replays were officially reviewed, and one team emerged victorious in one of the all time greatest NCAA Tournament games—a superlative cemented even before the dizzying finish.
“This is by far the craziest weekend of basketball [I’ve been a part of],” Butler senior forward Matt Howard said after the game. “This is the type of game you really play for.”
Down by one point with 9.1 seconds to play, Butler advanced the ball to the frontcourt and called timeout with 7.2 seconds showing. Head coach Brad Stevens drew up a play similar to Butler’s final play against Old Dominion two days earlier, a play that had broken down and, in the chaos, led to a buzzer-beating victory. This time, against the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday night, Bulldogs guard Shawn Vanzant busted through the right side and drew Pitt center Gary McGhee toward him and out of the paint. Vanzant found a wide-open Andrew Smith whose layup put Butler ahead seemingly for good, 70-69, with 2.2 seconds remaining.
Pitt’s Ashton Gibbs inbounded the basketball to Gilbert Brown at halfcourt but led him toward the sideline. Butler’s Shelvin Mack ran at Brown and bumped him before he managed a desperation shot. Referee Terry Wymer raced toward the scene of the crime, fist raised, blowing a whistle that was entirely drowned out by the Butler celebrations. While the refs reviewed the time left on the clock—and adjusted to 1.4 seconds remaining —Mack appeared devastated having committed, as he would later call it, “probably the worst foul in Butler history.”
Brown, who had the game of his life with 24 points on 8-for-11 shooting, hit the first free throw, tying the game at 70. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon kept his players on the line, later explaining that he didn’t want to take Brown “out of his rhythm by pulling players off the line.” The problem with Dixon’s reasoning is that Brad Stevens broke Brown’s rhythm anyway by substituting a player before the second free throw. Although standing by his decision, Dixon took responsibility for what ensued.
Apparently assured overtime, and with the chance to win, Brown’s second foul shot rimmed out and Howard pulled down the rebound. Pittsburgh’s Nasir Robinson hung on to the left arm of Howard, who made a heady play by heaving the ball toward his basket, 90 feet away, lending more effect to Robinson’s contact. To Pittsburgh’s horror, official Antinio Petty whistled Robinson for the foul.
While the officials again reviewed the time remaining on the clock, the Verizon Center crowd was overcome with disbelief.
Two unthinkable and inexcusable fouls that are rarely called in the closing moments of games when the ball is so far away from the basket were both called. Nobody in the arena was more relieved than Mack—whose scintillating 30 points were, in one foolish move, nullified. And yet, it now seemed that he might be forgiven after all. The junior guard sprinted downcourt and motioned his teammates to hurry down for Howard’s free throws.
And nobody in the arena was more upset than Robinson, who was inconsolable after the game, repeatedly blaming himself.
“I’m smarter than that,” he said. “I’ve been playing this game too long to make a mistake like that.”
Howard walked down the court with the refs confirming the 0.8 seconds remaining, a footnote in most games but in this, perhaps another chapter. He sank the first free throw to give Butler the 71-70 lead, and Butler’s players were pulled off the free throw line. Dixon substituted two players in while Stevens hollered at Howard to intentionally miss the second shot. He complied and Pitt’s Brad Wanamker grabbed the rebound, hurled a 65-foot shot downcourt a moment after the buzzer sounded. The ball hit off the inside of the rim and flew out.
“[After Andrew Smith’s layup] who would’ve known there are three possessions left,” Howard said after the game. “I feel for those guys [from Pitt], I can’t imagine going out that way.”
For a not-so-fleeting moment, Howard knew that feeling all too well. Indeed, both teams’ players experienced hope and despair, felt pain and relief, and knew victory and defeat.
All of those emotions vacillated in a matter of two long seconds.