Saturday, April 2, 2011, 10:39 p.m. UPDATED 11:17 p.m.
By Ryan OHalloran
HOUSTON Its national championship hopes and bid to take a place in college basketball immortality had been extinguished moments earlier by a fellow mid-major program.
The toughest part for VCU wasnt finding an answer for Butler guard Shelvin Mack or staying composed despite a wide foul disparity. No, after a 70-62 loss to the Bulldogs in the Final Four game, it was the walk up the ramp at Reliant Stadium.
Reality was setting in.
Shaka Smart, the upstart second-year coach, stared ahead blankly trying to comprehend the Rams missed opportunity. Make no mistake, this one stings, he would say.
Joey Rodriguez, the bundle-of-energy point guard, walked hands-on-hips, wondering why the productive offense was occasionally flummoxed. We missed open shots, shots we had been making, he later said.
And Ed Nixon, another senior who played his last game, was already thinking about what was lost. I feel like we left one out there; we could have had this one, he said in the locker room.
Could have had it, but probably shouldnt have gotten it. Playing in front of a semifinal day record crowd of 75,241, Butler was the better team because it was able to equal VCU from beyond the arc, was able to get to the foul line and was able to avoid putting the Rams on the stripe.
The Rams, only the third No. 11 seed, to reach the national semifinals, had VCU-like bursts early in both halves, but were doomed by Butlers 16 offensive rebounds and eight 3-pointers, and an inability to keep tabs on Mack, who scored a team-high 24 points.
Butler advances to its second straight title game and will face Connecticut on Monday.
VCU was within four points (61-57) with 2:32 remaining, but Butler does what it seemingly always does made a play at the offensive end (Matt Howard follow) and the defensive end (Howard rebound and subsequent two free throws) to put the game away.
Thats Matt Howard, coach Brad Stevens said. He has a non stop will to succeed and that is it. Nothing else matters to him.
VCU (28-12), one of the last at-large teams to make the NCAA tournament field, defeated five BCS-conference schools on its road to the Final Four but had no answer for the Horizon League champions.
Whos this years Butler? the schools student section yelled in the final minute.
Of course, its once again Butler and not VCU.
VCUs run was inspiring to a lot of people, including us, Stevens said. The way they played, the way they really beat a lot of unbelievable teams handily was remarkable and probably made them the hottest team in the tournament coming into this game.
But what irked Smart the most was VCU got away from the style of play that ignited their run. It was unable to play at their fast tempo. It missed a lot of easy shots around the basket. And it didnt defend the 3-point shot as well.
For the majority of the game, they were the more aggressive team and that made the difference, it was probably the biggest difference from this game and our last five, Smart said.
Still, the Rams were in position to advance to Monday nights title game. Down six at halftime (they led by as many as eight in the first half), VCU started the second half with seven consecutive points to lead 35-34 with 17:21 remaining.
But up 43-42, the offense hit a rut, scoring only two free throws on the next six possessions. Meanwhile, Butler heated up. First it was reserve guard Zach Hahn, who scored eight consecutive Bulldogs points and then it was Mack.
On a span of four trips, Mack scored eight points, stretching a 44-43 lead into a 52-45 advantage. VCU was unable to get it to a one-possession game the rest of the way.
He was a killer tonight, Smart said. He stepped up and made some huge, huge shots. We talked about taking away his 3-point looks and he was 5-of-6. Hes as good a college basketball player as any of the guards in the Final Four.
Jamie Skeem was brilliant for the Rams, scoring 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Bradford Burgess added 15 points and nine rebounds.
But Howards 17 points and Shawn Vanzants 11 points to compliment Mack was too much to overcome.
The Rams hope the sting Smart mentions disappears quickly and the opening five games of the tournament can be appreciated.
Hopefully when I leave the arena, it will dawn on me that we are part of history and one of the best teams that VCU has ever seen, senior Brandon Rozzell said. It feels good to be a part of, but it hurts to lose this game.
Contact Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org