x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Butler do not feel like the underdogs this time

It is Connecticut, not Duke, who are standing in the way for their second tilt at the NCAA tournament title.

Shawn Vanzant and his Butler teammates, disposed of Virginia Commonwealth in the semi-final but will now have to beat the University of Connecticut to win the NCAA Tournament men’s final tomorrow.
Shawn Vanzant and his Butler teammates, disposed of Virginia Commonwealth in the semi-final but will now have to beat the University of Connecticut to win the NCAA Tournament men’s final tomorrow.

"We're not done yet!" That was the rallying cry from the Butler Bulldogs, who are back in the championship game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament, not as loveable underdogs but as a team intent on making up for last year's heart-break.

The Bulldogs will face the surging Connecticut Huskies in the title game of the US men's collegiate basketball season tonight in Houston (Tuesday morning in the UAE).

Butler will be looking for a different ending than last year, when they reached the final game but missed a long shot at the buzzer and lost by two points to Duke.

"We're not going to settle on just getting back," said Zach Hahn, who had a big game off the bench in Butler's 70-62 victory over Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday night that earned the Bulldogs another trip to the title game.

"I remember the sour taste it left in my mouth last year, and I just think this group, we're here now and we have a chance," he said.

"That's all you can ask."

Shelvin Mack scored 24 points, and Hahn scored all eight of his points during a 90-second span in the second half that gave Butler control of the game as the Bulldogs shut down hot-shooting VCU with their trademark defence.

The eighth-seeded Bulldogs will be the lowest-seeded team to play for the national title since Villanova won it as No 8 seeds in 1985.

"We've just got to be one shot better than last year," Brad Stevens, the coach, said.

On Saturday night, Butler's stifling defence was too much for VCU, only the third No 11 seed to reach the Final Four.

"Butler was the aggressor for the majority of the game," Shaka Smart, the VCU coach, said. "We had our runs."

Just not enough of them.

Jamie Skeen scored 27 for VCU and Bradford Burgess had 15, including three three-pointers before the game was even seven minutes old. But Butler's Stevens is known for his tactical skills, and this game was no different. He tweaked the defence, and Burgess had just one more three-pointer the rest of the night.

VCU had always managed to find a shot when they needed it, but Butler would not allow it. VCU were just eight of 22 from long range, though that was still enough to set the NCAA record for most three-point shots in a tournament with 61.

"Some of our shots didn't fall. Open shots, shots we'd been making," Joey Rodriguez, the guard, said. "I think if you go back and look at the tape, you'll see some of them were in and outs. [I] almost felt like it wasn't supposed to happen or something."

That Butler are playing for the title again is even more impressive than their first trip, considering they lost Gordon Hayward, last year's leading scorer and rebounder, to the NBA. Butler also lost two other players who made significant contributions, Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes.

VCU were disappointed, but expect to be back.

"Of course it's not a once in a lifetime run. We're going to try to do this every year," said Smart, in his second year at the school. "It's not easy, there's no question about it. [But] if we're capable of coming together as a group and playing aggressive, confident, loose basketball, and we have the right guys out there, it's certainly possible."

In Saturday's other semi-final, Kemba Walker scored 18 points to lift Connecticut to a 56-55 win over cold-shooting Kentucky that moved the Huskies one victory away from their third NCAA title.

Walker, a quick-handed junior from the Bronx, added seven assists and six rebounds to help the young UConn team extend a winning streak that started with five wins in five nights at the Big East conference tournament and now includes five more at the tournament that really counts.

"The guys decided they didn't want to go home; [that] this is too much fun," Jim Calhoun, the UConn coach, said.

But this win, which improved Calhoun to 5-1 in his four Final Four appearances, was not a work of art at either end. Fourth-seeded Kentucky shot 33.9 per cent and went five minutes, 39 seconds without a point late in the second half. UConn were not much better, but Walker, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier all made baskets to turn a 48-all tie into a 54-48 lead with 2:29 left. Kentucky, the nation's most successful programme, are stuck on 105 NCAA-tournament wins, still tied for first with North Carolina, the team they beat to get here.

"We held a pretty good team to 56 points," Calipari said. "I hate to tell you, [but] we talked about if we defend them this way, they're going score around 56 points, maybe 60. I just didn't think we'd score 55."