HOUSTON — The lovable underdog label is long gone. Now Butler is determined to drop that "first loser" tag, too.
Shelvin Mack scored 24 points and Zach Hahn came up big off the bench, ending the warm-and-fuzzy story of this year's tournament with a 70-62 victory over VCU in the Final Four on Saturday night. The victory sends Butler to the national title game for a second straight year and marks the first time since Duke in 1991 that the runner-up has returned to play for the championship.
"We've just got to be one shot better than last year," coach Brad Stevens said.
The eighth-seeded Bulldogs (28-9) will face the winner of Kentucky-Connecticut on Monday night.
"Last year we didn't get it done, so that's in the back of my mind," said Mack, who earlier this week said national runners-up was just another way of saying "first losers." ''My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball in position to have success."
Hahn scored all eight points of his points during a 90-second span in the second half that gave Butler control of the game for good.
VCU (28-12) sure didn't look like a team critics dismissed as "unworthy" — and a whole lot worse — after it skidded into the NCAA tournament with five losses in its last eight games. But Butler's unforgiving defense was too much for the Rams, only the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four.
"They played terrific all the way through, and we were fortunate to pull that one out," Stevens said.
Jamie Skeen scored 27 and Bradford Burgess had 15, but the Rams made only eight 3-pointers and shot less than 40 percent from the field. Joey Rodriguez, the smooth point guard who dictates VCU's offense, didn't make a shot until 8:30 left in the game, finishing with only three points on 1-of-7 shooting.
The Bulldogs came within a bounce of winning it all last year only to see Gordon Hayward's last-ditch, half-court heave carom off the rim and watch Duke celebrate the title with a 61-59 win. That the Bulldogs are playing for the title again is maybe even more impressive than the first trip, having lost Hayward, their leading scorer and rebounder, to the NBA lottery. Butler also lost two other players who made significant contributions, Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes.
But it took Butler a while to get to this point. When the Bulldogs skidded through four losses in five games, including three straight, midway through the Horizon League season, many wondered if they'd even make the tournament, forget about the Final Four.
But they've reeled off 14 straight wins now and are playing with the cool determination of guys that don't want to be "first losers" ever again.
Their defense during their winning streak has been just nasty, and it was what carried them again against the Rams.
After falling behind 34-28 at the half, the first time in the NCAA tournament they trailed at halftime, VCU reeled off five quick points to take a 35-34 lead. Then it was time for a little game of "Can you top this?", starring Hahn.
Skeen made a 3 and Hahn answered back with one that didn't even rustle the strings of the net. Skeen converted a three-point play, and Hahn made another 3. Brandon Rozzell, who tied his career high with six 3-pointers against Georgetown, showed he can score from inside, too, with a layup, only to have Hahn — who else? — make a reverse that put Butler in front 44-43 with 12:20 left.
Butler clamped down on the Rams, not allowing another field goal for more than three minutes. Meanwhile Mack, who earned most outstanding player honors in the Southeast Regional, showed off his dazzling skills yet again. He made back-to-back 3-pointers and then a layup to give Butler a 52-45 lead with 9:41 to play, and the game was all but over.
"Butler was the aggressor for the majority of the game," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "We had our runs."
Butler's run last year inspired mid-majors everywhere, including VCU. The Rams had won a grand total of five games in the NCAA tournament before this year, never more than one at a time.
But they showed the little guys can play with anybody, anytime.
"We're just a big family. This whole season was great. It was a great run. We made history. We kept making history," Skeen said. "We went deep into the tournament and did what everyone said we couldn't do."
After VCU missed its first five shots of the game, Burgess drilled a 3 to spark an 11-0 run that gave the Rams an 11-5 lead with 15:38 left in the first half. Another 3 by Burgess about 2½ minutes later put the Rams up 15-7, and coach Brad Stevens had had enough and tweaked Butler's defense.
Burgess didn't score again the rest of the half and had only one more 3 the rest of the night.
Butler was an adorable story last year, a 4,200-student school playing for the national title just six miles from campus. That the Bulldogs play in the same arena where "Hoosiers" was filmed only added to the sweetness.
Although Butler has shown it has more substance than a movie sequel, consider this: that 1954 Milan team that was the basis for Hoosiers? It didn't win the title on its first trip to the Indiana state finals.
It did it the second time around.