HOUSTON — Up the tunnel they trudged, without a word or sound. The bright lights of Reliant Stadium faded. So did noise from the celebration that raged on the court.
All Joey Rodriguez could think about were the rims. The little point guard who made Virginia Commonwealth University's basketball team go knew he wouldn't be able to sleep. Not with the image of balls that whirled and teased their way around the rims only to pop out.
Three weeks and five wins transformed VCU from a No. 11 seed criticized for its inclusion in the NCAA Tournament to a team that didn't believe it would lose. The charmed run ended with a 70-62 loss to Butler in a national semifinal Saturday night.
"It was almost like it wasn't supposed to happen," said Rodriguez, arms red with scratches and welts from diving on the court. "It just stinks."
All this felt incongruous to VCU, after the run where everything seemed to roll its way. Three-point surged to 43.8 percent in the previous five games and accounted for 42.9 percent of the team's scoring. Against Butler's physical defense, VCU managed only 8-for-22 from beyond the arc. And too many layups — coach Shaka Smart estimated six to eight — didn't fall through.
Jamie Skeen, the senior who scored a game-high 27 points, thought about the shots that spun out. Bunnies, he called them. Little ones that could've made a difference. He blamed himself for for those shots, for the loss.
Then he choked up. Over two days his parents, Eric and Jackie, drove 27 hours from Charlotte, N.C. to Houston for the game. They couldn't afford plane tickets.
"That's nothing but love," Skeen said.
His parents almost saw their son put VCU back in the game. With 2:32 left, Skeen sank a 3-pointer and was fouled. A free throw would've cut Butler's advantage to three points. It rimmed out.
Brandon Rozzell, the senior sharpshooter who comes off the bench, believed the game turned on that free throw. Sink it and the momentum would've swung, Rozzell, thought. Enough to have him playing in the national championship game Monday night instead of planning to avoid the game, ESPN and anything resembling basketball highlights.
"I wish those shots that rolled and rolled around would've gone in," Rozzell said. "But things happen for a reason."
Rodriguez wondered if the end came a heartbeat earlier.
Shawn Vanzant hit a 3-pointer from the corner that pushed Butler's lead to seven. VCU's defense did as it was told. Get the ball out of Shelvin Mack's hands — he delivered 24 points on 8-for-11 shooting -- and deny the wings. Blitz, VCU calls it.
The play unfolded as VCU hoped. But Mack found Vanzant open in the corner. After the shot went through, Vanzant backed down the court, hold up three fingers on each hand.
Smart tried to will his team back in the game, dropping into a defensive stance, veins bulging in his neck, bouncing up and down.
But the shots rimming out, the big 3-pointer, Mack and rebounding woes were too much to overcome. Butler, headed to its second title game in as many years, outrebounded VCU, 48-32. That led to 19 second-chance points. VCU collected only six.
Rebounding has dogged VCU all season. The problem was camouflaged in the previous two games -- wins over Florida State and Kansas — when those teams pulled down 25 more rebounds than VCU.
Sure, VCU made history as the third No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four. That was little comfort when they arrived in the locker room to boxes of fried chicken and little bottles of Tabasco sauce and cans of Coke. Rodriguez didn't touch the food.
"I don't think it's hit any of us yet," Rodriguez said. "I can't believe it's my last game."
A text message interrupted him. The unforgiving rims vanished. The message was from his father, Joe. He was proud of his son.
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