Mistakes against Butler too costly for VCU

HOUSTON -- Rodney the Ram, the school mascot, stood in front of the student section flexing as the last of VCU’s players trudged off the floor. Jamie Skeen lagged behind with a towel draped over his neck as he high-fived fans on his way toward the tunnel at Reliant Stadium.

His parents hadn’t been able to afford plane tickets to Houston and drove about 1,000 miles from Charlotte to be in the building. He knew many VCU students made an even longer journey from Richmond -- many enduring a daylong bus ride -- to watch their team fight for a chance to play in the title game.

So Skeen slowed up to acknowledge them. But it remained difficult for the No. 11-seeded Rams to put their magical run to the Final Four in the proper perspective, the underdogs knowing they had their chances in a 70-62 national semifinal loss to Butler and simply didn’t capitalize.

“I’m thinking about all the free throws, all the easy shots I missed,” Skeen said.

The 6-foot-9 senior scored a game-high 27 points, but missed numerous shots at point-blank range along with two chances in the final minutes to make it a one-possession game. He appeared to have all the momentum after hitting a 3-pointer with 2:32 left while getting fouled by Ronald Nored, but he missed the free throw after a timeout and the score stood at 61-57.

“The free throw didn’t go in, and we didn’t get any closer,” VCU’s Shaka Smart lamented after his first postseason tournament loss as a head coach.

VCU (28-12) collected 16 fewer rebounds and eight more fouls than Butler did. The Rams shot 13 fewer free throws and missed five of them. All their mistakes added up against a Final Four-tested Bulldogs team.

“A lot of those balls were in and out,” said point guard Joey Rodriguez, who had a couple of shots rattle off the rim. “It almost felt like it wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Skeen also needed to sit for extended minutes because of foul trouble. He picked up his third foul with 18:59 left and said he didn’t want to blame the referees in general. "Matt Howard is going to do an acting job and fall to the ground,” Skeen said. “Everyone knows he’s a flopper. It’s worked for him, so more power to him.”

Asked about the disparity in foul calls, Smart said, “Yeah, I better be careful about that. My conference commissioner is in the back. I thought the foul disparity was significant. It really affected the game.”

VCU also credited Butler, of course. The Bulldogs generally were able to break out of the press while slowing, not allowing a single point to the Rams on the fast break. Smart noted that Butler was able to switch on ball screens so as not to leave the Rams many open 3-point attempts.

Shelvin Mack scored 24 points and was 5-for-6 from beyond the arc for Butler, hitting shots that were contested. Howard was 11-for-12 from the line and finished with 17 points and eight rebounds to help Butler back to the national championship game.

Smart, meanwhile, was adamant in saying the Rams expected to be back. They had knocked off Kansas, Purdue, Georgetown and USC by double digits along the way, after all. They barely made it in the tournament, had to play in the First Four and needed overtime to squeak past Florida State. “Of course it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime run,” he said. “We’re going to try to do this every year.”

“We’re a part of history,” guard Brandon Rozzell said. “We’re the best team VCU has ever seen, but it hurts. It will feel good.”