Sunday March 20th, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The game already was a classic, the strong clubhouse leader for the best of this NCAA tournament. For 39 minutes and almost 51 seconds, Pitt and Butler staged the type of battle usually contested by those wearing padded gloves to complement their baggy shorts.

Just like in the latter stages of an epic prize fight, pedigree and reputation mattered no more. Two programs, with on-paper differences as wide as the spread between their 1- and 8-seeds, were virtual equals on this night under the bright Verizon Center lights. The giant scorecard above the court showed Panthers 69, Bulldogs 68. The roaring, delirious, bipartisan crowd rose to see the decision rendered.

And then the final 9.2 seconds vaulted the game to the ranks of the unforgettable -- involving two of most inexplicable fouls you'll ever see.

The time before those fateful ticks provided plenty of its own drama -- and eerie foreshadowing for the game's crucial combatants. First, Butler's Andrew Smith missed a free throw that would have tied the score, then Pitt's Gilbert Brown clanked a jumper; and then Smith somehow didn't convert a point-blank putback (albeit from an awkward angle). Pitt's ball again, 44 seconds left, up one.

On their final full possession, the Panthers were predictably deliberate -- then too much so, failing to squeeze off a shot before the 35-second clock expired, handing possession and (assumedly) the game's final chance to the Bulldogs.

"They had been running the same play over and over again and had been pretty effective in it," Butler guard Ronald Nored said of that defensive stand. "They kind of ran a different variation of it. That allowed us to guard it in a different way."

Countered Pitt coach Jamie Dixon: "I think we passed up an open shot that we should have taken and made an extra pass that we shouldn't have done, and that was probably our mistake."

After the violation, Butler inbounded from foul line extended in its backcourt, quickly advanced the ball across the timeline and called timeout in the frontcourt with 7.1 seconds left. Nored said afterward that Butler didn't have an actual play called for that inbounds because Pitt didn't pressure up all game, so the Bulldogs felt comfortable they could get the ball in and execute the way they did.

Now set up to inbound from near the Bulldogs' bench, Butler coach Brad Stevens went to work.

"I have about five side outs in my mind going into a game if we're in that situation," he said. "... First of all, I didn't know what they were going to do defensively because they did play a little 2-3 zone today, and I just drew up something that would work against both."

The play was actually designed to find standout forward Matt Howard on the weak-side block, but when that wasn't available, Howard circled around and set a ball screen for Shawn Vanzant. According to Stevens, Vanzant rejected the screen and drove right, slashing down the outside of the lane. Smith's defender had to rotate over to defend the drive and Vanzant found Smith wide-open for the go-ahead layup with 2.2 seconds remaining.

Pitt was out of timeouts, but didn't panic. Smartly, Ashton Gibbs' inbounds pass was thrown long over Brown and Butler's Shelvin Mack and heading toward the sideline near halfcourt. Mack reacted like a defensive back who lost the flight of a pass and took a bad angle. He ended up impeding Brown near the sideline and committing what he called "probably the worst foul in Butler history."

It was a judgment call, made with 1.4 seconds remaining, but it seemingly was the correct one.

"We were winning, got a little too antsy and pushed up a little too hard," Smith said. "There's only two seconds left. They're going to shoot a shot from halfcourt. There's no reason to push up on him. Just get back, stay up front, make him shoot a shot ... It was the right call."

Suddenly, improbably, Pitt had a chance to win and Brown, a 78-percent free throw shooter, stepped to the line for two. In a scene reminiscent of the end of Teen Wolf, Mack stood in the middle of the lane, maybe a foot away from and directly in front of Brown. There was some one-way conversation. Whether it happened the way Howard and Mack relayed it afterward is up to you to believe.

"I was hoping that whatever Shelvin was talking about would distract him a little. I guess that's one thing he does very well, " Howard said, with a laugh. "He just said that he was asking where he was from and what his GPA was, stuff like that. I have no clue. He could have been lying."

Brown calmly sank the first. Butler had no timeouts left. Howard was staring at a heartbreaking end to his stellar career.

"Coach had drawn up a play. He said, 'If he makes both of these, this is what we're gonna do ... ," Howard said. "You're just thinking, 'Man, there's no way we can lose this way. There's no way.' Even though you are confident and you're trying to portray confidence to the rest of the team, it's hard to believe you're going to win if he makes those two free throws."

Stevens admitted afterward there was no precise play for that situation, that Butler would run "something to the effect of we're just gonna cut guys different ways and choose one" with a long inbounds pass.

Brown's second free throw arced up, floated down, grazed the front rim, hit the back and spun out directly to Howard on the left side of the lane. He turned and felt Nasir Robinson's arm come down on his, raised up and awkwardly heaved the ball in the direction of Butler's lonely basket, 90 feet away.

"I really don't know if he thought they were still down one or what," Howard said, "but he sort of wrapped me up, so I let the ball go and threw it at the rim."

Whistle. Foul. On Pitt. With 0.8 seconds left. Butler, inexplicably, had the game in its palm once again.

"I wasn't thinking at all," Robinson said. "I was trying to make a play. It was a dumb play, and I wasn't thinking at all."

After the game, the hot debate was whether Pitt should even have had Robinson in position to commit that foul.

"Everybody will question that, but I think we did what everybody would have done," Pitt's Dixon said. "You want your shooter comfortable. You don't want to be taking guys off the line, you don't want to take him out of rhythm after hitting his first one."

When asked whether he was confident he'd make his first of two free throws, Howard joked, "I was trying to bargain for three, just in case." He didn't need three, or even two. The first one slipped calmly through the net. The second was intentionally line-drived off the rim and Pitt couldn't gather the carom cleanly in time to launch a shot before the buzzer. It's worth noting, though, the heave that wouldn't have counted sailed about 70 feet and hit back iron. It made total sense.

Butler wins, 71-70.

The postmortem: This tournament has its first seismic upset, snake-bitten Pitt was denied postseason glory once again, and last year's national finalists continue their own dramatic story. It's one that looked to have ended with a crushing final sentence a bit less than a year ago, but now lives and breathes in another dramatic chapter.

This game will live on forever in the minds of college basketball fans. Maybe you'll forget Mack's seven triples and 30 points. Maybe the memories of how the two teams slugged each other into near-oblivion but never backed down will fade. But you'lll never, ever forget the way the game ended.

"Craziest thing I've ever been through, the last two and whatever seconds left," Howard said. "It's hard to describe because you don't really ever see that. It feels good to come out on top, but I'm still trying to figure out what happened."

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