Butler looks to finish the job this time

Butler's Matt Howard, one of three seniors that figure in the Bulldogs' rotation, is averaging 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds for the season.
Butler's Matt Howard, one of three seniors that figure in the Bulldogs' rotation, is averaging 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds for the season.
Posted: April 04, 2011

HOUSTON - The moment has been replayed repeatedly, the half-court shot launched last year by Butler's Gordon Hayward that seemed to trace in slow motion a perfect line to the basket. The ball hit the backboard and the rim before falling to the floor a fraction of an inch away from becoming the most remarkable play in NCAA championship game history.

Instead, the missed shot meant another national championship for Duke. Butler was praised for its pluck and grit and its ability to stay with the No. 1-seeded Blue Devils for 40 minutes. Many who watched the game figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and the Bulldogs would never be on college basketball's largest stage again.

Heck, it only took them one year.

The Bulldogs are back in the championship game Monday night, with Connecticut the opponent and Reliant Stadium the venue. They did it without Hayward, who left after his sophomore year and became an NBA lottery pick by the Utah Jazz.

What's left is a veteran team led by junior guard Shelvin Mack and senior forward Matt Howard, two examples of toughness and perseverance who led Butler (28-9) on a 14-game winning streak to get to this point when it looked in February as if it wouldn't make the tournament at all.

"We never thought we'd have this opportunity to be here, but we never think about it," Mack said. "We just think about improving each day. We never worry about the end result. We just worry about the process that you're going through, and it'll just take care of itself."

On a night when the Bulldogs shot poorly, Mack connected on 8 of 11 shots, including 5 of 6 from three-point range, to score 24 points in their 70-62 national semifinal win Saturday night over Virginia Commonwealth. He enters Monday night's game averaging 21.8 points in the tournament.

The 6-foot-8 Howard, one of three seniors in Butler's rotation, is averaging 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds for the season while providing muscle inside. He scored 17 against VCU, making big plays in the stretch run.

"I think just getting prepared for it, that's where the experience of being here last year does help," Howard said. "The game, obviously, is going to take care of itself, and the result will decide whether or not experience helped. That's just the nature of the game and how things go."

Connecticut (31-9) is on a 10-game winning streak of its own, a run that included five wins in five days for the championship of the Big East. Given that they were struggling at the end of the regular season, the Huskies have had a remarkable trip here, though coach Jim Calhoun has two national titles (1999, 2004).

The UConn roll has been guided by junior guard Kemba Walker, who played well all season but elevated his game over the last month. In the postseason, he is averaging 25.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.2 steals.

Butler's best defensive player, junior Ronald Nored, is the team's sixth man, but Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said Walker will see more than one defender throughout the game, referring to Mack and fellow guard Shawn Vanzant in addition to Nored.

"I think we've got versatile guys on the perimeter that can defend multiple kinds of guys," Stevens said. "I don't think you can ever defend a guy as good as Kemba Walker with one guy. I don't think it's a sound way of going about it. [Nored] is an outstanding defender. He really cares about it."

But Mack will make the Huskies work at their defensive end. Calhoun called Mack a future pro who can draw fouls the same way Walker can.

"He's kind of gone under the radar nationally when we talked about the players of the year, the great players," Calhoun said of Mack. "He can match up with anybody. He's a terrific, terrific basketball player."

It figures to be a championship game that will go down to the wire again.

"There were absolutely no regrets last year," Stevens said. "Our guys played as well as they could have. They represented themselves in an unbelievable manner throughout that whole game. That might be the reason why we had parades, even though we lost."

Just think what could be if Butler actually comes out on the winning end Monday night. Mack isn't taking any chances.

"We work on that [half-court] shot all the time before practice," he said, "because you never know when you'll have that opportunity."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.

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