WASHINGTON, D.C.—On Saturday night, Shelvin Mack became the 12th-leading scorer in Butler history, passing long-ago Bulldogs star Bobby Plump. Though Plump starred for Butler in the 1950s, he was already a legend before he arrived on campus. In 1954, he made the jumper that earned Milan High the Indiana state championship—the shot and the season that inspired Hoosiers.
Butler's 71-70 win over Pittsburgh was as dramatic as any sports movie, and yet entirely unsuitable for the silver screen. Real life is always messier than a Hollywood ending, but this was no ordinary mess—a basketball game that, in its extraordinary final moments, transformed from a hoops classic to a farce and back again. In the words of the players and coaches, here's what happened in the last seven seconds of game action, a sequence that lasted more than 10 minutes and featured just one field goal attempt.
7.1 seconds to go, Pittsburgh leading 69-68: On Thursday against Old Dominion, Butler had the ball with the score tied and 30 seconds to go. The deciding play didn't go as planned. Shawn Vanzant drove to his right, slipped, and shot an airball. Center Andrew Smith, though, managed to slap the errant shot off the backboard, and Matt Howard grabbed the ball and banked it in as time expired.
The circumstances are different on Saturday night—there's less time on the clock, the Bulldogs are losing, and Pittsburgh's playing man-to-man defense as opposed to ODU's zone. Butler coach Brad Stevens diagrams a play on the sidelines, one the team hasn't run before and that doesn't have a name. Mack, the inbounds passer, first looks to lob the ball to Howard in the low post. Pitt has him covered, so Mack passes to Vanzant, whose right foot touches the NCAA logo at midcourt as he catches the ball.
Stevens is sure his point guard will go left—it's Vanzant's favorite move, and Howard is in perfect position to set a screen. But Vanzant rejects the screen and goes right, re-enacting the play from the Old Dominion game. This time, he doesn't fall on his face. As Vanzant gets in the lane, Pitt's Gary McGhee leaves the 6-foot-11 Smith. Vanzant, now double-teamed, leaps in the air and flings a right-handed, over-the-head hook to the Butler center. Smith grabs the ball at his waist, takes one step, and banks it off the glass before any of four Pitt defenders can get their hands up to block the shot. "I didn't have to do much," Smith says, walking through the play in the locker room. "Shawn did all the work, and I just had to lay it in."
For Smith, this was the perfect ending—his first-ever buzzer beater at any level, and it was going to put Butler in the Sweet 16. "Oh yeah, it was great. I was fired up," he says. "And then it ended up not even really mattering."
2.2 seconds to go, Butler leading 70-69: Pittsburgh's Gilbert Brown watches Smith's shot from a few feet behind the backboard, his momentum having carried him to the feet of Butler's manic cheerleaders. The Panthers have no timeouts, and Brown looks unsteady. He stutter-steps on to the court, then stutter-steps off again, uncertain if he should stay or go.
The ball ends up at the feet of Pitt's Ashton Gibbs, and it bounces one, two, three, four, five times before he picks it up. Once Gibbs picks up the ball, Brown slides down the court, looking back expectantly. Butler's Shelvin Mack is looking, too. Gibbs arcs a diagonal pass, and Brown, Mack, and the bouncing ball converge just short of half-court. Unable to stop himself, Mack smashes into Brown's right hip. As referee Terry Wymer raises his arm to call a foul, Mack stretches his arms out wide, incredulous.
Matt Howard was standing just a few feet away from Mack, on the other side of the midcourt stripe. "As soon as they made the call, it's like the hand to the head," he says after the game. "You're thinking, No way. There's no way. … There's no way this is happening."
Brad Stevens is less disbelieving than monumentally pissed. "No way!" he yells, lashing out at the referee in an atypically gravelly rasp. "You won the game, Terry!"
Andrew Smith, who raced back to the opposite end of the court after his layup, doesn't agree that Butler was robbed by the refs. "I knew right when [Mack] did it that they were going to call a foul," he says later. Another teammate, Khyle Marshall, agrees: "Got up in him a little bit, pushed him out of bounds—it was the right call."
Despite his on-court body language, Mack comes clean after the game, telling his coach he was guilty as charged. "Once the call was made, I realized that it was the dumbest mistake of my life," he says in the post-game presser. The typically decorous Stevens feels sheepish, too. "I'm just a little bit emotional," he says, explaining his in-the-moment outburst toward Terry Rymer. "Probably need to control myself a little bit better."
For Mack, this dumb mistake looks like a cruel ending to what, two seconds prior, was the best game of his career. He's scored 30 points, keeping Butler in the game with a torrent of long-range jumpers. With 5:45 to go and the Bulldogs down three, the 6-foot-3 guard pump-faked the taller Brown, rose up once the Pitt defender left his feet, and poured in a game-tying three-pointer, his seventh. Garrett Butcher and Andrew Smith rose off the bench, smiling and shaking their heads. Mack wasn't going to let Butler lose.
TODAY IN SLATE
Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS
But the next president might.
The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices
Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.
The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything
It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.
How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?
Here are the facts.
The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender
What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?