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Butler’s calm demeanor leads to last-second wins
Question of the Day
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Matt Howard stood at the free-throw line Saturday with 0.8 seconds left and a whole nation waiting to see if Butler could eliminate another No. 1 seed.
He made it look easy.
Buzzer-beating shots and last-second free throws have become a way of life for Butler recently, sustaining two consecutive runs into the NCAA's regional round and turning the Bulldogs into the Ice Men.
"There was no question he (Howard) was going to make that free throw. You just knew it," coach Brad Stevens said Sunday. "It's really, really hard to do that, but Matt stepped up and did it."
Whatever it takes, Butler almost always seems to get the job done.
Before Howard's free throw and intentionally missed second shot sealed Saturday's bizarre victory, it was Andrew Smith's inadvertent tip to Howard for the layup winner against Old Dominion.
Before that, it was Howard's pick at midcourt that gave former teammate Gordon Hayward an open look for a half-court heave that nearly beat Duke in last year's title game.
And before that, it was Hayward's rebound to seal the Final Four win over Michigan State and before that it was Hayward's steal to preserve a second-round win over Murray State.
How does Butler do it? They say they simply focus on all the little things and making big plays part of their regular routine.
"I've just been fortunate to be in the right position," Howard said. "You can't get much easier than a layup and a free throw."
Teammates and coaches have different explanations for the last-second heroics.
Shooting guard Shelvin Mack, whose foul with 1.4 seconds left Saturday nearly cost Butler the game, believes the success is a direct result of Stevens' calm, confident sideline demeanor. Mack believes that resonates with a veteran team and has helped the Bulldogs to stay composed when others come unglued.
The win over the top-seeded Panthers is a perfect example. While the officials used replay to check the clock after Mack's foul, Butler was already calling a play and trying to console the distraught guard.
"They kept telling me there would be another possession," Mack said.
In Howard, Butler has an unflappable 6-foot-8 senior forward, former Horizon League player of the year and an academic All-American who has added a 3-point shot to his repertoire this season. He's smart enough to understand where to go when a shot is taken and to know when to miss a free throw without being reminded.
Yet Howard's greatest attribute may be compelling his teammates not to take plays off _ and to believe they will win, no matter what happens.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Matt Howard makes sure we all play a full 40 minutes," Stevens said.
Most of Butler's key players have been together for three seasons, which gives them the freedom to them improvise when necessary.
Take the play that gave Butler a 70-69 lead with 2.2 seconds left Saturday.
Stevens called for senior guard Shawn Vanzant to drive to the baseline and dish to Howard. But with defenders converging and Howard covered, Vanzant saw the wide-open Smith underneath the basket for an easy layup to give Butler a 70-69 lead with 2.2 seconds to go. He never hesitated.
To the nation, it was another chapter in Butler's incredible run. To the Bulldogs, it was just another play in another game.
Over the past two seasons, Butler has gone 12-6 in games decided by one or two points or in overtime and the Bulldogs have been even better come tourney time. They are a remarkable 5-1 in postseason games decided by four or fewer points over the past two years, coming within that infamous bounce of being 6-0.
Opponents, including fourth-seeded Wisconsin, know what they're getting when they draw Butler (25-9), too.
"They're not an underdog at all. They have talent all over their team," Badgers forward Jon Leuer said in preparation for Thursday night's game against the Bulldogs. "They have guys that can really fill it up and they're well coached, too. You mix that talent with the coaching they have and you're going to be in for a battle."
Especially if the game comes down to the final possession.
"I think if you look at us right after that call (against Mack), there was head-scratching for a few snippets," Howard said. "But you have to believe they're going to miss one of those two and that you'll have a chance. I think any time you have a coach who is that calm and that confident, that helps, and being through what we've been through helps, too. We just believe in ourselves."
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