Mack leads Butler back to Final Four
Of course Butler erased a late deficit. Of course the Bulldogs hit a clutch three-pointer late in overtime. Of course they're going back to the Final Four.
This is the Butler Way.
Shelvin Mack scored 27 points, including five in overtime, and Butler reached the Final Four for the second year in a row with a 74-71 victory over Florida on Saturday.
"This is a huge deal," said Zach Hahn, whose two three-pointers helped Butler stay close in the first half. "I don't know that any other mid-major has ever done this. It's hardly happened once, let alone twice. It's an unbelievable feeling."
Butler, the Horizon League champ, has vanquished three higher seeds from major conferences — top-seeded Pittsburgh, fourth-seeded Wisconsin and now second-seeded Florida — in succession.
Those big wins came after Howard tipped in a winner in the final seconds against Old Dominion.
This game had another frantic finish.
"We just kind of stayed together, stayed the course, figured it out, and just played resiliently," Butler coach Brad Stevens. "I'm incredibly proud of these guys. They carried their coach in a big way. ... Our players did a great job, and [they are] just a special group. We're really lucky that they're Butler Bulldogs."
Matt Howard scored 14 and Khyle Marshall added 10 for the Bulldogs (27-9), who showed again they simply won't give in, climbing out of an 11-point hole in the last 9:25 of the second half.
Mack was playing through pain after rolling his left ankle in the first half and needed a small bandage on his forehead in the second half. He could not recall what happened to his head, only that it was bleeding when he came to the sideline.
That didn't stop him from draining a crucial three-pointer with 1:21 left in overtime to give Butler the lead for good at 72-70. He also had enough vigour left during the net-cutting ritual to do a mocking Gator chomp with his arms from atop a ladder.
"It's a physical game. That's what the NCAA tournament is all about," Mack said. "You wouldn't want it any other way."
Kenny Boynton missed a long 3 that could have given Florida (29-8) the lead with a little under 20 seconds left. Alex Tyus appeared to have the offensive rebound, but Howard tied him up and the possession arrow favoured Butler.
Florida had to foul Mack with 10.6 seconds to go, and he hit both shots for the final margin before Erving Walker missed a three to tie in the final seconds.
"Congratulations to Butler," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "They had great, great heart tonight. ... I knew they had that, you know, all year long."
Before reaching the round of eight this year, Florida hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since winning its second straight national title in 2007.
The Gators missed the tournament entirely in 2008 and 2009, before returning last year and being knocked out by BYU in the first round.
Florida ended Butler's season twice before in the NCAA tournament, once in 2000 in the first round and again in 2007 in the round of 16.
Motivational text messages
The Bulldogs hadn't forgotten.
Butler players got motivational text messages from Bulldogs past concerning their latest matchup with the resurgent Gators.
In the locker room after the game, players said they hoped they made the Butler community proud. Judging by video of celebrating fans back in Indianapolis being passed around the locker room on a cellphone, they had.
Last year, Butler was able to play in front of those fans at the Final Four in Indianapolis, where about 30,000 fans attended their open practice.
Now it seems as though the Bulldogs win the crowd wherever they play, although Stevens suspects the support they had at last season's Final Four in their hometown will be hard to top.
"Nothing will be like Indy. Indy was crazy," Stevens said. "If there's 30,000 people (at open practice) they're going to try to be getting whoever else's autographs are there in Houston. It's not going to be for our guys. ... But trust me, we will play anywhere they send us and we are thrilled to go to Houston."
Vernon Macklin scored a career-high 25 points for Florida, while Boynton finished with 17 points and Tyus had his second-straight double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Butler had to overcome Florida's size advantage and a number of its own mistakes.
In regulation, the Bulldogs made 10-of-20 free throws and shot 39.6 per cent (21-of-53), including 8-of-30 from three-point range. Yet they somehow found a way to survive to overtime, when they hit all seven foul shots and three of their eight field goals.
Remarkably, Butler also outrebounded the Gators, 41-34.
One win away
Now the Bulldogs are one win away from a second straight appearance in the national championship game.
"They're tough," said Florida forward Chandler Parsons, who had a disappointing five points on 2-of-9 shooting. "They're physical. They have all the characteristics of a good team. You know, it's not their first time here. They were in this situation last year, so I think their experience helped them and I think they just came up with big plays when the team needed it."
Florida appeared to be taking control when Tyus, the leading scorer and rebounder in Florida's overtime win over BYU, got loose for a pair of soaring dunks, then added two free throws and a driving floater during a 12-1 run that gave the Gators a 51-40 lead with 9:26 left.
Howard's basket inside as he was fouled snapped the run, then seldom-used reserve Chrishawn Hopkins, who'd just set up Howard's score, added a three as Butler slowly clawed its way back again, finally tying it at 57 with 3:03 to go on the second of consecutive driving layups by Mack.
Macklin, who'd been limited by foul trouble in the second half — he committed his fourth with 9:02 left — returned to hit a free throw and a layup on a strong move inside to make it 60-57. Mack's free throws cut it to one point and Howard had a chance to give Butler the lead after drawing a foul with 30.7 seconds left.
He missed his second free throw, then Walker missed a long pull-up jumper — his eighth straight miss to that point — forcing overtime.
"Walker was 1-of-10, and he's been such a clutch shooter for us," Donovan said. "When you get into those situations where the game is coming down to the wire like that and it's one-possession games, anything can happen."
Butler initially took a 67-64 lead in the overtime on Ronald Nored's free throws, but Florida came back with a couple of clutch threes. Boynton's tied it 67, then Walker finally hit his first field goal from 3 to put the Gators up 70-69.
That's when Mack responded with his big three that propelled Butler to its latest upset. It helped make up nicely for the Pittsburgh game, when his late foul nearly cost Butler a chance to move on.
"I feel incredibly good for Shelvin," Howard said. "If we would have lost on that play, he still scored 30 points and carried us. You can't fault him and say you lost us the game because he essentially won us the game. The kid's incredible. He really carries us at times. This is the type of player Shelvin is."