Woeful shooting costs Butler its second chance

HOUSTON (AP) — Butler couldn’t go inside. It couldn’t score outside. Its shots were blocked all night long.

Forget the last-second heave.

When it came to winning this championship, the Bulldogs played down to their size.

Butler set a record for worst shooting percentage in the NCAA title game, a woeful 18.8 percent, and managed the second-fewest field goals, making only 12 baskets in its 53-41 loss to Connecticut on Monday night.

It is the second straight year the Bulldogs (28-10) finish as runners-up, after losing 61-59 to Duke last year. The loss snapped Butler’s 14-game winning streak.

“You just hope the shots go in,” said senior Zach Hahn, who was 0 for 2 after giving Butler a big lift in the semifinals. “That’s how it’s been all tournament. Whenever we needed a big shot, somebody came up with it. I guess we just ran out of steam. Nobody could make ’em.”

Shelvin Mack, who averaged almost 22 points in the first five games in the tournament, was Butler’s only player to finish in double figures — and he managed only 13 on 4-of-15 shooting. Leading scorer Matt Howard made his only field goal about five minutes into the game, finishing with seven points in 13 shot attempts.

It was Howard’s fewest points since scoring six in the season opener against Marian, when he played only 23 minutes in a blowout.

“This one is pretty frustrating, just personally,” the senior said. “I wish, from my standpoint, that I was able to give a little bit more to my team.”

The Bulldogs were hoping to reverse last year’s heartbreak, when Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim. Give little guys everywhere hope, too. After all, if a school with 4,500 students that plays in the Horizon League can win the national title, what’s stopping every other team playing in the mid-majors?

Instead, Butler showed why the little guys have it so tough.

Butler had no answer for UConn’s big men inside. Alex Oriakhi, Tyler Olander and Charles Okwandu all stand 6-foot-9 or taller, and they treated the paint as if it was their turf and the Bulldogs were trespassing. They shoved them, bumped them and generally made life miserable for anyone who dared come close to the basket.

“Matt Howard, we told Alex, that, that right there, that’s your bone. You pick on that. You’re the one that we want right now with him,” UConn guard Shabazz Napier said. “He played as hard as he can and disrupted a lot of shots tonight.”

When Butler did manage to get off a shot, the Huskies were there to swat it away. They finished with 10 blocks, and that UConn finished with a 26-2 edge in the paint was a surprise only in that Butler actually scored a basket inside.

“They guard you so well, when you start to get a few open ones, you’re not feeling comfortable,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve done that to people on the other end. We’ve just never done it at that level.”

All but three of Butler’s shots were from 3-point range, and the Bulldogs were 9 of 33 from beyond the arc. They had scoring droughts that lasted what seemed like an eternity.

Butler’s 41 points were 10 points fewer than the worst showing in the shot-clock era in a championship game (Michigan scored 51 in a loss to Duke in 1992). The 18.8-percent shooting broke a record that had stood since 1941.

“That’s part of basketball. Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t,” Butler guard Ronald Nored said. “Tonight was just that night that it didn’t.”

Despite its shooting woes and scoring droughts, Butler managed to take a 22-19 lead at the half on Mack’s 3-pointer just before the buzzer. As the ball swished through the net, he turned and screamed at the Butler bench, and did a flying chest bump with Nored as they ran off.

That would be about it for the highlights. After Chase Stigall opened with a 3 in the second half, the Bulldogs would make only one more field goal over the next 12-plus minutes.

It’s not that they didn’t have their chances, but the basket may as well have been a slit for as much success as they had.

“We felt great coming out the second half,” Nored said, “and the shots just didn’t fall.”

Maybe it was bound to happen after Butler squeaked through three of its first five games.

The Bulldogs got a layup at the buzzer from Howard to beat Old Dominion in the opening round. An improbable foul and Howard’s free throw in the final seconds got them past Pittsburgh, and Mack scored five of his 27 points in an overtime win over Florida.

“We kept telling each other, ’Shots are going to go in, keep shooting, it’s going to be fine,”’ Howard said. “We kept thinking the shots were going to go in.”

They never did.

This year’s loss may have been vastly different from last season, but the ache afterward was still the same. The Butler players didn’t bother to hide their tears, the sound of sniffles the only thing that broke the locker room’s silence. Nored’s eyes were red and he fought tears as he spoke. Shawn Vanzant sat all by himself at his locker, head down.

“Any time you lose it hurts, especially in the championship,” Vanzant said. “But to come this close and fall short, it hurts bad.”

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