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Butler rekindles last March's magic with buzzer-beater against ODU

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On the floor of one urban arena, a shot was made at the buzzer and a little piece of karma was earned. In the basement of another urban arena, a little more than 2,000 miles to the west, a professional basketball player -- not yet 21 years old -- vicariously lived the moment with his distant college teammates.

The last time a Butler basketball player attempted a shot in an NCAA tournament game, it was Gordon Hayward's half-court heave at the buzzer of last year's national championship game, a toss that bounced off the backboard and rim and dropped to the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium, allowing Duke to hang on to a 61-59 victory. (In fact, the last two Butler shots in that game were Hayward's, before that a fadeaway 12-foot baseline jumper that was inches long).

Thursday afternoon, the first afternoon of the full NCAA tournament, Butler again played in March Madness and again the game was decided by a shot at the buzzer. This time it was 6-foot-8 senior center Matt Howard (whose crushing screen on Kyle Singler had freed Hayward for his bomb last April), who dropped in an offensive rebound at the buzzer to give the Bulldogs a 60-58 victory over Old Dominion.

When it ended, I sent a text to Hayward, who was watching the game in the Utah Jazz locker room after finishing practice at Energy Solutions Arena in downtown Salt Lake City. (For a story about the Duke-Butler final in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, I had talked at length with Hayward about that game and the tough emotional -- if not financial -- decision to leave Butler. It was clear then that he retains a close connection to the Bulldogs).

I wrote: "What did you think of that?"

Back came Hayward's reply: "Awesome!!! Finding ways to win down the stretch ... and to win on an offensive rebound against old dominion ... beating them with their own medicine."

It is rare that last year has anything to do with this year, especially in college basketball, where players are sometimes gone from campus before they learn where the snack bar is. Even Butler junior guard Ronald Nored said after Thursday's game: "Last year was great. But our focus was on Old Dominion." Give him that. Athletes seldom look back when there is something in front to occupy them.

The same, however, cannot be said for the rest of us, who could not watch Butler play again with NCAA logos on the floor without thinking of that Monday night last April and all that led up to it. (Memory refresh: Small school -- 4,200 students -- from Indiana beats No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the West Regional and makes Final Four in hometown of Indianapolis. Epidemic Hoosiers comparisons ensue).

There were distinct differences. That team reached the national championship game with 25 consecutive wins. This team was 14-8 in early February, very much in danger of missing the tournament altogether. That team had Hayward. This team does not. But those differences only made Thursday's win more endearing. Old Dominion was a very solid team, anchored by 6-9, 255-pound Frank Hassell on the inside.

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Butler spent most of the first half trying to solve ODU's wide 3-2 zone. "We'd rather play against man-to-man," said Nored. Late in the first half, both Howard and 6-11 sophomore Andrew Smith were benched with two fouls. Howard got his third with 16:36 to play and Smith got his fourth with 15:56 left. Yet when the Bulldogs should have faded, they took control.

Smith took a charge from ODU's Kent Bazemore with five minutes to play and Bazemore's left arm accidentally opened a gash over Smith's eye. "It hurt," said Smith. "But I could tell it wasn't my head." He implored Butler trainers to patch up the cut quickly and was back on the floor with 3:21 left. Butler led by six with 10 minutes remaining and still by six with 2:56 to go. Howard played the entire second half without a break, at one point tipping a rebound to junior forward Garrett Butcher (Hayward's best friend) without grabbing the ball, a sensational athletic move.

But ODU, the Colonial Athletic Association champions and a team widely respected by bracketologists, tied the game on Bazemore's two free throws with 31.2 seconds left. Just as it did against Duke, Butler had a possession to win the game (although in that one, the Bulldogs trailed by a point. Details.).

On the decisive play, guard Shelvin Mack gave the ball up to guard Shawn Vanzant. Butler coach Brad Stevens had diagrammed a play in which Vanzant would attack the middle of ODU's zone (which was essentially matching up, as if in man-to-man defense) and then, most likely, dish to Smith, who would attempt to "duck" into the middle. ('That means step in front of my man and push him out of the way," said Smith). But as Vanzant accelerated along the lane, ODU's Hassell came off Smith and threatened Vanzant. Smith was wide open in the lane, but Vanzant planted and his right leg gave out.

"I'm sure people are already making fun of me on YouTube," Vanzant said after the game.

Possibly not. As Vanzant fell sideways, he flipped the ball up toward the basket. (ODU coach Blaine Taylor, he of the Stan Van Gundy mustache, would say afterward that Vanzant might have traveled. And he might have, but it wasn't called.) Stevens said, "Shawn tripped, and then made a great play to get the ball up in the air." (Vanzant said, "If coach said that, I'll take it.")

There was more. Smith went up high for the wild shot and smacked the ball against the glass, keeping it alive over the top of several good rebounders from ODU. Howard had planted himself at the top of the key for a kick-out three-point shot, but as Smith went up, he began moving to the weak side. "Jogging, more than running," Howard said. He was alone, grabbed the rebound and dropped it in at the horn.

In the aftermath he stood outside the Butler locker room in a wide hallway. He is one of the most effective players in the country at his position, yet he brings beer-league looks: One knee pad, one elbow pad, clunky dark shoes. "I actually think that helps me," said Howard. Element of surprise. Once the game begins, looks are dismissed in a hail of slick interior passing and low post efficiency. (However, it must be noted that Howard crashed his bike on campus just before the Horizon League tournament when his rusted handlebars broke off. "I wasn't wearing my knee pad," said Howard. This also came two weeks after I talked to Howard in Hinkle Field House and he explained the importance of riding a bike that was "just bad enough that nobody would want to steal it.").

That conversation took place on the same day that Howard went over -- at my request -- last year's finish. Howard recalled his thoughts at the end of that game: "I was thinking, 'This can't be real," Howard said. "There's got to be more time. There's go to be another shot, right?"

On Thursday, there was more time and another shot. That doesn't change last April. But for this March, it was plenty sweet.