WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s 58-58, 30 seconds left, Butler ball. The Bulldogs are motionless, waiting for the clock to run down so they can make a move to the basket. Shawn Vanzant passes to Shelvin Mack, who passes back to Vanzant. With five seconds to go, Vanzant dribbles down the right side. He slips, falls, tosses the ball in the air as he flies parallel to the floor. Center Andrew Smith extends his arm and slaps the ball off the backboard. Matt Howard, crashing toward the rim from the free-throw line, grabs the ball and banks it in just over the left side of the rim. The horn goes off and Howard thrusts his right arm skyward—a wild, celebratory uppercut—before running to the bench and taking a flying leap into his teammates’ arms. A second later, he seeks out Smith and slams him in the chest, giving him credit for the timely slap that kept last year’s national finalist alive in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
On a day when the joys of March Madness keep on piling up—Morehead State over Louisville! four buzzer beaters in the first five games!—Butler’s scrambling final possession is one of the plays that destined for a lifetime’s worth of layup-buzzer-hug montages. The tourney’s best highlights are born out of chaos: Lorenzo Charles’ dunk off an airball, Rip Hamilton’s game-winning fallaway in the lane, Tyus Edney’s full-court scramble. In these moments, basketball games revert from well-diagrammed, coached-up affairs to first-man-to-the-ball scrambles. Butler’s game-winning shot is part hustle and part luck—a dead-even game ends on an air ball, a tap, and a rebound, all in a few tenths of a second. Butler may not have proved it’s the better team, but the Bulldogs won at highlight time. Nobody remembers the first 39 minutes and 59 seconds.
Butler has a shot at the end thanks to its defense, which holds Old Dominion to 23 percent shooting and five field goals in the second half. On ODU’s first three possessions of the game, the Monarchs make a layup, a three-pointer, and a tip-in. Thirty-four-year-old Butler coach Brad Stevens, who looks as if he’s gotten younger since last year’s national championship game, turns around and glares at his weary-looking assistant coaches, all four of whom are balding. (Is he drawing up plays on Dorian Gray’s whiteboard?) “These guys suck defensively,” Stevens says, raising his voice only slightly, sounding more let down than angry. He continues his diatribe a few minutes later: “I’m disappointed. If our guards were better, we’d be great.” Starting guards Shawn Vanzant and Chase Stigall go out, subs Ronald Nored and Zach Hahn go in.
Nored does not suck defensively. When he’s on the bench, he calls out ODU’s offensive sets to his teammates—after the game, he says he’s spent the last four days memorizing every one of the Monarchs’ plays. (In case anyone’s hiring, he says he wants to be a coach some day.) Nored’s homework pays off: He turns the game around with three first-half steals, and Butler cuts ODU’s early lead to two after 20 minutes.
When the second half begins, the refs remember their whistles. ODU, which shot four free throws in the first half, gets 23 chances from the line in the second. Butler’s inside players, Smith and Howard, both pick up their third fouls, then Smith gets a quick fourth. Mack, too, eventually gets called for his fourth foul—he tells me in the locker room that it’s the first time he’s been in foul trouble in three or four years. He also says, tactfully, that the refs did a great job.
As the fouls start adding up, Stevens is less diplomatic. “This has been a completely different game,” he says to his assistants, sounding incredulous that the officials are calling touch foul after touch foul. With everyone in foul trouble, the Bulldogs have to bring in Garrett Butcher, who averages 8 minutes and 1.6 points per game. In the locker room, Butcher talks about how he hasn’t seen much action this year—a bone bruise above his knee makes it hard for him to stay on the court for more than a few minutes. On Thursday, though, he plays for 13 minutes, scoring six points and grabbing five offensive rebounds. When Butcher returns to his usual spot on the bench towards the end of the second half, Stevens walks down and lovingly tousles Butcher’s hair. “Nice job,” he says.
Butcher, Smith, and Hahn say they can’t quite remember what they were doing in the game’s frantic final seconds. Nored, who wasn’t on the floor for the last play, saw it happen right in front of him: Shawn Vanzant’s stumble, Andrew Smith’s slap, Matt Howard’s layup. On the replay of the final shot, you can see Nored waving his left arm—the future coach trying to direct his teammates. As Howard grabs the ball, Nored gets into a deep catcher’s crouch, then rises three feet in the air as the shot goes through. “I wanted to give Matt a big hug,” he says, the events of five minutes prior becoming instant nostalgia in the post-game locker room. That hug is what the post-game highlights will show. Nored rushes off the bench and takes a flying leap, crashing into a happy scrum of teammates—a celebration born out of chaos.