Some days you just can’t hit a shot. You just hope it doesn’t happen in the NCAA tournament. For the Butler Bulldogs it did, and now everybody will remember their 12-for-64 performance against UConn in the championship game – a bottom-scraping 18.8 percent – as much as their inspiring run to the final (for the second straight year).
Just think: The Bulldogs scored as many points as Kentucky’s Goose Givens did (41) when the Wildcats beat Duke in the ’78 title game. The horror.
Once upon a time, another Butler-like team had a day like that in the tourney – not quite as bad, but almost. Forty years ago, in the East Region final, Penn shot 29.9 percent (20 for 67) and lost to Villanova, 90-47. Twelve minutes into the game, the score was 34-9.
The Quakers weren’t your ordinary Ivy League champ, either. They were 28-0 at the time and ranked third in the AP poll behind John Wooden’s UCLA juggernaut and Al McGuire’s Marquette Warriors (who were 26-0 going into the NCAAs). They had just knocked off No. 6 South Carolina, the ACC winner, in the Sweet 16 and had defeated Villanova earlier in the season in a Big Five battle.
If you lived in the East, you were dying to see Penn play UCLA in the Final Four (as Villanova later did). The Quakers were just a terrific team, one that included several future NBA players (Dave Wohl, Phil Hankinson and the wonderfully named Corky Calhoun), a future NBA head coach (Wohl with the Nets) and two future college athletic directors (Steve Bilsky of Penn and Craig Littlepage of Virginia). Their coach was Dick Harter, who went on to be the Charlotte Hornets’ first coach and had a lengthy career as an NBA assistant and defensive mastermind.
But against Villanova, well … look up Your Worst Nightmare in “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.” You’ll probably see a picture of a Quaker clanging a shot in the ’71 Elite Eight. It was that definitively ugly.
Bilsky spent some time as GW’s AD before returning to his alma mater. I once asked him, “Do people often mention that game to you?”
“Only every day,” he said with a smile. He was exaggerating, I suspect, but not by much.
The next year, Penn met Villanova in the Sweet 16 and got a bit of payback, 78-67. But nobody remembers that Penn-Villanova game, just the one in ’71, when the wheels came flying off for the Quakers. And for Butler, too, there will likely be no erasing the memory of 18.8 percent. Pity. The Bulldogs, after all, held the Huskies to a mere 53 points themselves. Only four teams in the previous 61 years had scored fewer points in the title game – Indiana in ’02 (52), Michigan in ’92 (51), Houston in ’83 (52) and North Carolina in ’81 (50). Naturally, all of them lost.
Butler and Penn might share one other connection, by the way. After the ’71 tournament, Villanova was forced to forfeit its second-place finish when it was discovered that star forward Howard Porter had signed with an agent during the season. Will the same thing happen to UConn if the NCAA finds the Huskies guilty of additional violations? It would be small consolation for the Bulldogs, but it would be something, at least.