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.
Butler, meanwhile, couldn’t stop Gilbert Brown. “He was incredible,” Howard enthuses outside the locker room. “He was their Shelvin Mack.” On the Butler sideline, Stevens watches Brown with a combination of disgust—”Shelvin, you need to get up into him more,” he shouts in the first half, loudly reproaching his star—and awe—when Brown makes a baseline three over Howard, the Butler coach applauds.
Mack’s foul, then, is both a great injustice and an opportunity for a deserving coronation. “I was banking on going out to the free throw line and making two shots,” Brown tells the press a few minutes after the final buzzer.
Andrew Smith, thinking all is lost at this point, is “just freaking out.” The Bulldogs get a short reprieve, at least, when the refs must huddle to figure out how much time should be on the clock. With Brown having to wait around, Butler turns to psychological warfare. “We were just trying to psych him out,” Smith explains. “We were just standing there looking at him.” In the lane, two feet in front of Brown’s face, Mack tries to make conversation. “I just asked him where he was from,” Mack says, to laughter in the press room. “I told him I was from Lexington. I have a 3.0 [grade point average]. Stuff like that.”
In the same arena five years prior, LeBron James whispered in Gilbert Arenas’ ear in the closing seconds of a playoff game. Arenas missed two free throws and the Cavs won the game (and the first-round series) on a shot by Damon Jones. Brown, however, is clutch: The first free throw hits nothing but net.
1.4 seconds to go, score tied 70-70: Butler now has to prepare for the worst: a potential one-point deficit, no timeouts, length of the floor to go. “Coach drew up a play, and so in my mind, I’m just telling myself, This is gonna work, this is gonna work. Even if he makes two, this is gonna work. It’ll be fine,” Howard remembers.
But the Bulldogs’ plan is sketchy. “We were just going to have to throw it deep,” Stevens recalls, “cut guys different ways and choose one.” Stevens calls on Erik Fromm, who’s been on the court for a total of six minutes since the beginning of February, to play the part of Grant Hill. After the game, I ask Fromm how he earned this particular role. “I guess ‘cause I’m tall,” the 6-foot-9 freshman says, sounding as befuddled as anyone.
After Butler’s designated long passer takes the court, Brown steps up for the second free throw. Six minutes earlier, the Pitt forward had made three straight from the line, bouncing the first one in off the front rim and backboard, swishing the second, and caroming the third off the rim and backboard once again. Now, he releases the ball high above his head. It arcs softly and hits the front of the rim. This time, the ball doesn’t carry those extra few centimeters—it caroms off the back rim, shoots straight up, and skitters away.
Howard, who’s on the right block, jumps across the lane for the rebound, and Pittsburgh’s Nasir Robinson chases behind him. Howard gets there first, and when Robinson tries to grab the ball he gets the Butler player instead. Howard flails his arms and flings the ball wildly into the air. Whistle—another foul.
For the Butler players, this is a familiar feeling. “I had probably the worst foul in Butler history, but then the dude from Pittsburgh made up for me,” Mack says in his presser, feeling more schadenfreude than empathy. The forever foul-prone Howard, though, sees Nasir Robinson as a kindred spirit: “I’m normally the one that’s fouling 92 feet away from the basket.”
0.8 seconds to go, score tied 70-70: After the refs take a few more minutes to look at the clock, it’s Howard’s turn to toe the line. The senior forward, who speaks in an Indiana twang and looks like a stretched-out Andy Samberg, purses his lips, takes a couple of dribbles, and lofts the ball through the net—not quite Bobby Plump material, but a memorable shot nonetheless. Howard misses the second free throw on purpose, and Brad Wanamaker’s desperation 80-foot toss—which wouldn’t have counted, alas, as it comes just after the buzzer—bounces tantalizingly off the rim, a bookend to Gordon Hayward’s missed half-court heave in last year’s national title game. This time, finally, Butler wins.
In the minutes after the game, the swarming sports press dutifully asks Nasir Robinson what he was thinking when he went over Howard’s back. He gives the desired, self-castigating response: “It was a dumb play, and I wasn’t thinking at all.” The writers continue to prod, trying to get someone, anyone to complain about the foul calls. When asked whether it’s appropriate for refs to take the game out of the players’ hands, Wanamaker and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon refuse to toss around blame. These questions are both leading and intellectually flimsy. When a referee blows his whistle, he gives the players as much agency as he takes away. On this night, noncalls would have constituted inappropriate activism—fearful refusals to punish players for their actions on account of the time and score.
It’s no accident that such a weird, ref-dependent, non-Hollywood ending exposes inapt sports clichés. Butler’s Stevens is the rare winner who’s willing to confess that basketball games don’t always have fair outcomes—that the team with the most points is not necessarily the better one. “Everything you put into it … we just had the ball last,” Stevens tells me. “We were lucky.”
Even if the final score doesn’t reflect Butler’s superiority, it’s hard for Butler’s coach and his players to avoid thinking they’re doing something right. In the year after the team’s shocking near-championship, the Bulldogs keep on winning close games and surprising top-ranked foes. When he saw Matt Howard get fouled with less than a second to go, Butler’s Ronald Nored didn’t see randomness and luck. “I think it always comes down to toughness,” Nored says after the game. “They’re a great offensive rebounding team from the free throw line, and Matt going to grab that is a big play. … Our toughness won out at the end.” Whether you choose to believe it or not, then, there’s one cliché that Butler isn’t ready to retire just yet: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.