Butler, meanwhile, couldn't stop Gilbert Brown. "He was incredible," Howard enthuses outside the locker room. "He was their Shelvin Mack." On the Butler sideline, Stevens watches Brown with a combination of disgust—"Shelvin, you need to get up into him more," he shouts in the first half, loudly reproaching his star—and awe—when Brown makes a baseline three over Howard, the Butler coach applauds.
Mack's foul, then, is both a great injustice and an opportunity for a deserving coronation. "I was banking on going out to the free throw line and making two shots," Brown tells the press a few minutes after the final buzzer.
Andrew Smith, thinking all is lost at this point, is "just freaking out." The Bulldogs get a short reprieve, at least, when the refs must huddle to figure out how much time should be on the clock. With Brown having to wait around, Butler turns to psychological warfare. "We were just trying to psych him out," Smith explains. "We were just standing there looking at him." In the lane, two feet in front of Brown's face, Mack tries to make conversation. "I just asked him where he was from," Mack says, to laughter in the press room. "I told him I was from Lexington. I have a 3.0 [grade point average]. Stuff like that."
In the same arena five years prior, LeBron James whispered in Gilbert Arenas' ear in the closing seconds of a playoff game. Arenas missed two free throws and the Cavs won the game (and the first-round series) on a shot by Damon Jones. Brown, however, is clutch: The first free throw hits nothing but net.
1.4 seconds to go, score tied 70-70: Butler now has to prepare for the worst: a potential one-point deficit, no timeouts, length of the floor to go. "Coach drew up a play, and so in my mind, I'm just telling myself, This is gonna work, this is gonna work. Even if he makes two, this is gonna work. It'll be fine," Howard remembers.
But the Bulldogs' plan is sketchy. "We were just going to have to throw it deep," Stevens recalls, "cut guys different ways and choose one." Stevens calls on Erik Fromm, who's been on the court for a total of six minutes since the beginning of February, to play the part of Grant Hill. After the game, I ask Fromm how he earned this particular role. "I guess 'cause I'm tall," the 6-foot-9 freshman says, sounding as befuddled as anyone.
After Butler's designated long passer takes the court, Brown steps up for the second free throw. Six minutes earlier, the Pitt forward had made three straight from the line, bouncing the first one in off the front rim and backboard, swishing the second, and caroming the third off the rim and backboard once again. Now, he releases the ball high above his head. It arcs softly and hits the front of the rim. This time, the ball doesn't carry those extra few centimeters—it caroms off the back rim, shoots straight up, and skitters away.
Howard, who's on the right block, jumps across the lane for the rebound, and Pittsburgh's Nasir Robinson chases behind him. Howard gets there first, and when Robinson tries to grab the ball he gets the Butler player instead. Howard flails his arms and flings the ball wildly into the air. Whistle—another foul.
For the Butler players, this is a familiar feeling. "I had probably the worst foul in Butler history, but then the dude from Pittsburgh made up for me," Mack says in his presser, feeling more schadenfreude than empathy. The forever foul-prone Howard, though, sees Nasir Robinson as a kindred spirit: "I'm normally the one that's fouling 92 feet away from the basket."
0.8 seconds to go, score tied 70-70: After the refs take a few more minutes to look at the clock, it's Howard's turn to toe the line. The senior forward, who speaks in an Indiana twang and looks like a stretched-out Andy Samberg, purses his lips, takes a couple of dribbles, and lofts the ball through the net—not quite Bobby Plump material, but a memorable shot nonetheless. Howard misses the second free throw on purpose, and Brad Wanamaker's desperation 80-foot toss—which wouldn't have counted, alas, as it comes just after the buzzer—bounces tantalizingly off the rim, a bookend to Gordon Hayward's missed half-court heave in last year's national title game. This time, finally, Butler wins.
In the minutes after the game, the swarming sports press dutifully asks Nasir Robinson what he was thinking when he went over Howard's back. He gives the desired, self-castigating response: "It was a dumb play, and I wasn't thinking at all." The writers continue to prod, trying to get someone, anyone to complain about the foul calls. When asked whether it's appropriate for refs to take the game out of the players' hands, Wanamaker and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon refuse to toss around blame. These questions are both leading and intellectually flimsy. When a referee blows his whistle, he gives the players as much agency as he takes away. On this night, noncalls would have constituted inappropriate activism—fearful refusals to punish players for their actions on account of the time and score.
It's no accident that such a weird, ref-dependent, non-Hollywood ending exposes inapt sports clichés. Butler's Stevens is the rare winner who's willing to confess that basketball games don't always have fair outcomes—that the team with the most points is not necessarily the better one. "Everything you put into it … we just had the ball last," Stevens tells me. "We were lucky."
Even if the final score doesn't reflect Butler's superiority, it's hard for Butler's coach and his players to avoid thinking they're doing something right. In the year after the team's shocking near-championship, the Bulldogs keep on winning close games and surprising top-ranked foes. When he saw Matt Howard get fouled with less than a second to go, Butler's Ronald Nored didn't see randomness and luck. "I think it always comes down to toughness," Nored says after the game. "They're a great offensive rebounding team from the free throw line, and Matt going to grab that is a big play. … Our toughness won out at the end." Whether you choose to believe it or not, then, there's one cliché that Butler isn't ready to retire just yet: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
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