In hindsight, the outcome should have surprised no one. From the opening tip, the Butler Bulldogs came out with more fight and energy hustle than the Pitt Panthers, and when the final horn sounded, it was Butler taking down the number one-seeded Pitt Panthers 71-70 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
The final minute of the game was won by Butler, or perhaps lost by Pitt at the free throw line, where two borderline calls seemed to decide the game. With a minute left in the game, Butler sophomore forward Andrew Smith scored on a layup, giving Butler a 70-69 lead before Pitt got the ball at half court on the next play. Then Butler junior guard Shelvin Mack committed a foul on Pitt’s senior forward Gilbert Brown, who connected on one of two from the line to tie the score at 70.
In what would be the game’s final sequence, Butler senior forward Matt Howard pulled down the rebound and was fouled by Pitt junior forward Nasir Robinson with less than a second left on the clock. Howard hit the first, making the score 71-70. Howard bounced the final free throw attempt off the glass, intentionally, giving the Bulldogs the win, and sending the first number one seed of this year’s tournament home to defeat in stunning fashion.
“I thought we played really hard. I thought we took some punches. We were down five after we had a big lead, and we could have folded, but these guys don’t fold. They are Bulldogs in every sense of the word,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens.
To their credit, the Pitt players refused to blame the officiating for the last second calls.
“I wasn’t thinking at all. I was trying to make a play. It was a dumb play and I wasn’t thinking at all. I blame myself. I am smarter than that. I have been playing this game too long to make a dumb mistake like that,” Robinson said.
Senior guard Brad Wannamaker saw the play just as Robinson did.
“He just made a play on the ball, the ref called the foul. I wouldn’t say it was taken out of his hands, I would just say the refs made the calls they were supposed to make,” Wanamaker said.
Pitt shot nearly ten percent better from the floor, shooting 56.6 percent to Butler’s 46.2 percent. Pitt also won the rebounding battle 33-22, and had 21 assists to Butler’s 12.
Butler won the turnover battle, committing six turnovers to Pitt’s 12, and topped Pitt from three point range, with Pitt going 6 for 11 while Butler connected on 12 of 27.
The back and forth contest featured 10 ties and seven lead changes, with neither team leading by more than five points in the second half. Mack led all scorers with 30 points, Howard added 16, and Smith and senior guard Shawn Vanzant each scored seven. Pitt’s leading scorer was Brown who had 24, Robinson scored 16, and junior guard Ashton Gibbs added 11.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon called the loss his responsibility, while expressing pride in the way his players handled themselves throughout the game.
“This is a disappointing loss for us. We got down and made a number of plays to put ourselves in position; [we] had a lead, and were just not able to close it. But I’m very proud of our guys; I’m proud of the effort we made. We didn’t lose it on one play,” Dixon said.
Brown appeared ready to put his college career in perspective.
“A loss is a loss, regardless of the outcome. It comes down to the plays that we didn’t make in the game, whether it be on a buzzer-beater or a free throw at the end. It hurts the same. And it hurts even more because it’s our last game. We know we’ll never be able to put that jersey on again and go out there and play with our teammates. Everybody on this team is like family, so this being the last game is really an emotional blow to us,” Brown said.
Butler improves to 15-10 in NCAA appearances, and has a record of 7-1 in its last eight games. Next for the Bulldogs is a date with Wisconsin on Thursday, March 24 in New Orleans.
“It’s great for the University and for the players in this locker room [returning to the Sweet sixteen],” said junior guard Ronald Nored.
“We are excited about it.”