By Nancy Armour
AP National Writer
HOUSTON — “We’re not done yet! Unfinished business, baby!”
That was the rallying cry from the Butler Bulldogs, who are headed back to the title game, not as lovable underdogs but a team intent on making up for last year’s heartbreak.
Maybe this time that final, riveting shot will go in.
Maybe this time Butler won’t need it.
“We’re not going to settle on just getting back,” said Zach Hahn, who came up big off the bench in Butler’s 70-62 victory over VCU on Saturday night that gave the Bulldogs a do-over and ended the warm-and-fuzzy story of this year’s NCAA men’s tournament. “I remember the sour taste it left in my mouth last year, and I just think this group, we’re here now and we have a chance. That’s all you can ask.”
Shelvin Mack scored 24 points, Hahn scored all eight of his points during a 90-second span in the second half that gave Butler control of the game for good and the Bulldogs shut down hot-shooting VCU with their trademark unforgiving defense. The eighth-seeded Bulldogs (28-9) will face Connecticut on Monday night, the lowest-seeded team to play for the national title since Villanova won it as a No. 8 seed in 1985.
“We’ve just got to be one shot better than last year,” coach Brad Stevens said.
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 stifling defense was too much for the Rams, only the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four.
“Butler was the aggressor for the majority of the game,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We had our runs.”
But not enough of them.
Jamie Skeen scored 27 and Bradford Burgess had 15, including three 3-pointers before the game was even seven minutes old. But Stevens is known for his tactical acumen, and this game was no different. He tweaked Butler’s defense, and Burgess had just one more three the rest of the night.
VCU had always managed to find a shot when it needed it in its first three games, but Butler simply wouldn’t allow it. VCU was just 8 of 22 from long range, though that was still enough to set the NCAA record for most 3s in a tournament with 61. But Brandon Rozzell, who tied his career high with six treys against Georgetown, was 0 for 3.
Slippery point guard Joey Rodriguez didn’t make a shot until 8:30 left in the game, finishing with only three points on 1-of-7 shooting.
Butler also dominated the boards, outrebounding VCU 48-32.
“Some of our shots didn’t fall. Open shots, shots we’d been making,” Rodriguez said. “I think if you go back and look at the tape, you’ll see some of them were in and outs. Almost felt like it wasn’t supposed to happen or something.”
The defense — and the big night by Mack — made up for a lackluster showing by leading scorer and rebounder Matt Howard. The senior had 17 points, but shot just 3-of-10 and picked up his fourth foul with 9:22 left.
“It’s not one guy making plays,” said Hahn, whose total Saturday was one point less than he’d had in Butler’s previous four tournament games combined. “It’s literally a collective effort; it’s all 14 guys.”
The Bulldogs came within a bounce of winning it all last year. But Gordon Hayward’s last-ditch, half-court heave caromed off the rim, and Butler had to watch Duke celebrate the title with a 61-59 win.
“Last year we didn’t get it done, so that’s in the back of my mind,” Mack said.
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.