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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

NCAA championship game will be a two dog night

Butler's second consecutive chance at the title and Connecticut's improbable run makes for one sensational story.

April 02, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Butler point guard Shelvin Mack (1) and teammate Chase Stigall celebrate after beating Virginia Commonwealth, 70-62, in an NCAA tournament semifinal on Saturday afternoon in Houston.
Butler point guard Shelvin Mack (1) and teammate Chase Stigall celebrate… (David J. Phillip / Associated…)

Reporting from Houston

It's been tough keeping with up the college sports scandals this week. They come almost hourly.

The Fiesta Bowl turned out to be a real fiesta involving strip clubs. Ohio State opened spring football practice amid allegations involving Coach Sweater Vest.

Auburn football players told HBO they were paid sacks of cash for making sacks.

New NCAA President Mark Emmert probably wished he'd worn a flak jacket to Thursday's state-of-the-union news conference.

Kemba Walker leads UConn to NCAA title game

Thank goodness for… Butler.

The story of last year's NCAA tournament is back in this year's finale with an even more outlandish tale.

Butler, which fell to 14-9 on Feb. 3 after a loss at Youngstown State, scored a 70-62 win over Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday in a national semifinal win at Reliant Stadium.

It set up a mid-major/large-major matchup against Connecticut, a 56-55 winner over Kentucky in the other semifinal game.

Butler is a fit in final, but no Cinderella

Freshman Shabazz Naper's two free throws with two seconds left proved to be the difference.

"I am glad I was able to get them to go," he said.

A football-sized crowd of 75,421 watched Saturday's action at Reliant.

Final Four teams succeed without former stars

Butler doesn't even have a football program.

"It's unbelievable," Butler senior forward Matt Howard said. "This is what you dream about doing … and to be able to do it twice is great. Hopefully we can finish it off this time."

Butler (28-9) won its 14th straight game and will wear white hats against Connecticut, a different kind of great story. The Huskies have won 10 straight games for a program under increasing scrutiny. Coach Jim Calhoun has had to answer more questions this week about his recruitment of Nate Miles even though the NCAA has already adjudicated the case.

As part of NCAA punishment, Calhoun has to sit out the first three Big East games next year.

He might be doing it as coach of the defending national champions.

For now Calhoun, who won national titles in 1999 and 2004, is enjoying the real-time moments of this team's run.

"The kids decided they didn't want to go home," Calhoun said on the court after Saturday's victory.

Monday's title matchup isn't good versus evil in a deep, dark, Biblical sense, but it does pit programs answering different kinds of legacy questions.

Butler did it this year without star Gordon Hayward, whose last-second heave at the buzzer last year in Indianapolis nearly sank the U.S.S. Duke.

Butler returned some key components, notably junior guard Shelvin Mack and the mop-headed Howard.

Mack finished with 24 points, making five of six three-pointers, while Howard played his usual late role despite picking up his fourth foul with 9:22 left.

Howard has been omnipresent in Butler's tournament run, seeming to show up near the ball every time his team needs a point or a rebound.

"He's unbelievable," Butler Coach Brad Stevens said. "He only wins. And his mind and motor are different. I mean, he is different."

He finished Saturday with 17 points and eight rebounds. He made only three of 10 shots but connected on 11 of 12 free-throw attempts.

The game turned in a few second-half moments after VCU cut the lead to four at 61-57 on Jamie Skeen's three-pointer with 2:32 left.

Howard, following teammate Shawn Vanzant's miss, had a put-back basket with 59 seconds left to push Butler's lead back to six.

Howard then scored four last-minute free throws to help secure the victory.

Who is this guy?

Howard isn't the same 6-8, foul-prone space eater we remember from last year, when he served as inside-the-lane muscle protection for Hayward.

Howard's game has matured. In fact, he has not fouled out of a game during Butler's 14-game winning streak.

It was too bad VCU (28-12) had to lose. The Rams' story was also compelling. VCU was already the first school to win five NCAA tournament games and not reach the championship game. The Rams were vilified by many for even making the expanded field of 68.

VCU defeated USC in the "first-round" game, and then knocked out powers from the Big East (Georgetown), Purdue (Big Ten), Atlantic Coast (Florida State) and Big 12 (Kansas) to earn the trip to Houston.

"It's a phenomenal run," VCU Coach Shaka Smart said after Saturday's loss. "It's really a historical run in NCAA tournament history … these guys are never going to be forgotten … but make no mistake about it, this one really stings."

The Rams simply ran out of magic. The team that made 53 three-point shots in five tournament games, while shooting nearly 44%, made only eight of 22 on Saturday

Bradford Burgess hit four of his seven attempts, and Skeen made three of his four, but Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell were only a combined one for 11.

Skeen and Burgess carried VCU as far as they could in combining to score 42 of their team's 62 points. Skeen's 27 points led all scorers.

VCU also got hammered inside, getting outrebounded by 16 (48-32).

VCU came a long way to come up short. Entering the tournament the Rams were a 350-to-1 shots to win.

VCU against Connecticut would have been a similar Monday setup: the unlikely upstart facing a major college basketball power with issues.

Butler vs. UConn is a better setup.

Last year's Bulldogs were seeded No.5 for their historic run. This year's team was a No. 8.

Last year's team had a superstar in Hayward. And this year's team, for most of the year, looked lost without him.

Butler's run to last year's title game was unbelievable.

This year's repeat run is unfathomable.

It seems like only weeks ago Hayward's shot in Indianapolis nearly downed Duke.

"I've seen that shot just through promos and on TV," Howard said. "But I haven't watched the game since."

Who would have imagined he might get to replay it?

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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