In the first game of the night in Houston, Butler was able to withstand an early barrage of VCU three pointers to take a six-point lead into the intermission. After an even start the Bulldogs allowed themselves to be drawn into the Rams' hectic style of play, breaking the pressure for three pointers instead of attacking the rim. VCU, who went into the game shooting 43% from three in the NCAA Tournament, made four of ten in the first half. By comparison Butler attempted 13, making just three, but what saved the Bulldogs was their ability to get to the foul line.
Butler outscored VCU 11-2 from the charity stripe in the first half and 20-8 for the game, and when you break even in points from three (24 apiece) the numbers from the foul line tend to add up. Butler used the foul line and a 48-32 edge on the boards to end VCU's dream run by the final score of 70-62. Shelvin Mack led the way with 24 points and six rebounds and Matt Howard added 17 and eight caroms to return the Bulldogs to the point where their season ended a year ago.
"I thought our inability to get out in transition took away from some of the three-point attempts we typically have," said VCU head coach Shaka Smart. "Again, they did a great job scrambling and getting out on shooters. We put it on the floor. We got in the lane. We just didn't make enough plays from there."
The key word leading up to the game was "tempo", with the bigger concern for both teams being what happened within each possession. Butler took some rushed shots early but as the game wore on, the experienced Bulldogs made better use of the 66 possessions (the season average for both teams). VCU opponents had a turnover percentage of nearly 23% on the season and with just nine miscues Butler finished with a percentage of 13.6%, which is better than their average on the season (16.9%).
Defensively the Bulldogs were able to slow down VCU despite the fact that the Rams assisted on 74% of their made baskets, limiting them to 41.6% on two-point shots to go along with the aforementioned numbers from beyond the arc (Ed Nixon, Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell combined to shoot 3-for-18 from the field). And without the major advantage they enjoyed in wins over Florida State and Kansas last weekend, VCU couldn't overcome the whipping they took on the boards. Jamie Skeen however was outstanding for the Rams, scoring a game-high 27 points to go along with six rebounds and three assists in his final collegiate game.
But despite the end of their run Shaka Smart's club will be remembered nationally for their run to Houston instead of the fact that it ended at Reliant Stadium. For a team few thought had a shot of simply making the field to get all the way to the Final Four is a remarkable achievement, something they'll all realize once a little bit of the pain subsides.
"VCU's run was inspiring to a lot of people, including us," said Butler head coach Brad Stevens. "The way that they played, the way that they really beat a lot of unbelievable teams handily was remarkable and probably made them the hottest team in the tournament coming into this game."
While many (beforehand) bemoaned the perceived "quality" of the first matchup due in large part to the absence of household names, in all honesty Butler and VCU put forth a more artistic showing than Connecticut and Kentucky. The game featured a pair of important runs, with the Huskies taking control once Shabazz Napier entered the game halfway through the first half to take a 31-21 lead at the half.
Kentucky, as they've done multiple times in the Tournament, stormed out of the locker room to regain the lead five minutes into the second half thanks in large part to the hot shooting of Doron Lamb. From there what ensued was a seesaw battle that was absent of whistles, resulting in the under-8 media timeout not coming until 2:09 remained in the game. Napier made two big plays late, scoring on a driving layup to give the Huskies a 54-48 lead with 2:28 to go and grabbing a loose ball following a DeAndre Liggins missed three in the final seconds with the Huskies up 54-52.
Napier's two free throws gave UConn an insurmountable 4-point lead with two seconds remaining, and Brandon Knight's three pointer as time expired had no effect on the outcome. So despite fatigue and some interesting decisions in crunch time Jim Calhoun's team finds itself one win away from a national title, and despite the praise given their offensive weapons it was defense that got it done for UConn.
Napier's bigger contribution was his defense on Knight, who shot just 6 for 23 on the night in his toughest outing of the Tournament.
The freshman led the Wildcats with 17 points but on a night where he didn't have it offensively, Kentucky steadily got away from their interior game. Terrence Jones scored seven of Kentucky's 10 points before the first media timeout...and finished with 11 points for the game. Josh Harrellson finished with just six points, and outside of Lamb the Wildcats weren't particularly efficient on the perimeter either. That all conspired to end a season few people expected before the season began.
"I thought the 1 for 10 down the stretch was the key to the basketball game," said UConn head coach Jim Calhoun. "We knew we were not going to make every shot, but if we can defend them, we can win this basketball game."
Kemba Walker led the Huskies with 18 points but due to fatigue he had to find other ways in which to help his team and he did just that. Walker also accounted for seven assists, six rebounds and two steals on the night, and Jeremy Lamb scored 12 points to go along with nine rebounds and four assists. Neither team had their legs down the stretch but UConn dug deep defensively, keeping Kentucky out of the lane and forcing them to settle for challenged twos (34.2% on two-point shots, UConn finished 59.4%).
"They played well. They defended us. They were physical," remarked Kentucky head coach John Calipari of UConn's performance. "They blocked some shots down the stretch that were killers for us. Like, why did we just pull it out, don't just throw it at the basket."
It didn't help matters that Kentucky made just four of twelve free throws; simply put the Wildcats have a much better chance of winning with a percentage closer to their season average of 71%. UConn's big men were also instrumental in the win despite allowing 15 offensive rebounds. Alex Oriakhi grabbed 10 to go along with his eight points, and despite a quiet stat line (four points, one rebound) Charles Okwandu gave the Huskies one more needed banger in the paint. Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith combining for 17 rebounds was also a factor for UConn, who remains undefeated in games against non-conference opponents this season.
So the stage is set for Monday night, matching up a program that's become a national favorite over the last two years with a program looking to win its third national title. Both teams can point to moments within this season as the catalyst for their respective runs (Butler losing at Youngstown State, UConn's practice following their loss to Notre Dame in the regular season finale). And neither was expected to come close to the stage that will be their canvas back in October.
National Title Game: (8) Butler vs. (3) Connecticut (9:23 PM, CBS)
1. G Shelvin Mack (Butler)
24 points (8-11 FG) and six rebounds in the Bulldogs' 70-62 win over VCU.
2. F Jamie Skeen (VCU)
27 points, six rebounds and three assists in the Rams' loss to Butler.
3. G Kemba Walker (Connecticut)
18 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the Huskies' 56-55 win over Kentucky.
4. F Matt Howard (Butler)
17 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals in the Bulldogs' win.