WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Matt Howard glanced up at the Verizon Center scoreboard after the final buzzer, he saw a familiar friend.
The number 60.
Along the way to basketball infamy last season, Butler adopted a simple mantra: First team to 60 wins.
It took the Bulldogs within a fraction of an inch of a half-court shot to a national championship.
There is a lot of time and distance to cover between now and Houston, but the Bulldogs have taken the first step on the road: Butler 60, Old Dominion 58.
The one-time Cinderella turned mid-major power won the game on the most improbable of shots -- a would-be disaster that could have fallen apart three different ways but instead slipped quietly through the net just as the buzzer sounded.
Was it karma?
“Nah, I don’t know if it’s that,’’ Andrew Smith said. “This is sort of how we’ve been winning games all year.’’
It would be an insult to the basketball intelligence Butler showed to simply say the basketball gods chose to smile on the Bulldogs in the final seconds. They advance to meet either Pittsburgh or UNC-Asheville not because they were lucky, but because they were smart.
“That was high-level, high-level IQ,’’ Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
With the score tied and the shot clock dwindling down, Shawn Vanzant drove to the right of the hoop. Before he could get in a shooting position, he fell.
He wasn’t sure if he stepped on someone’s foot or if he slipped. Regardless, instead of simply falling and bringing the ball down with him, the senior threw it high up in the air in the direction of the hoop.
It soared near the head of the 6-11 Smith and the sophomore, as he did the entire game, swatted at it to keep the play alive.
“I was trying to tip it in, but that didn’t happen,’’ said Smith, who finished with six rebounds.
The ball fell into Howard's hands. The senior is blessed with oven mitt-sized hands. Throw something within 16 feet of him and he’s likely to grab it.
He grabbed the ball off Smith’s tip and laid it into the basket for the win.
“Drew really made that play,’’ Howard said. “I was just in the right place at the right time.’’
Which sounds a lot more simplistic than it is. Stevens’ players are always in the right place at the right time.
The Bulldogs have never been a team of overpowering physical ability. They have plenty of talent. Gordon Hayward wasn’t a first-round draft pick by accident and plenty of rosters would welcome Howard and Shelvin Mack with open arms.
But beyond their skill it is the Bulldogs’ basketball IQ that separates them. They play well and smart.
How certain was Stevens that his team knew what it was doing? He had three timeouts in his hip pocket in the final seconds and didn’t even think about calling one.
“They change their defenses all the time, so it would have been a waste anyway,’’ he said. “We just called a play. I let them go. I trust them.’’
No, the karma isn’t that Butler won on a crazy shot.
The karma is that the Bulldogs won on a rebounding play. Old Dominion came into the game ranked fourth in the nation in rebounding margin.
In order to beat the Monarchs, Butler knew it would have to hang with them on the boards.
So what did the Bulldogs do? They beat ODU in rebounding, 32-29.
And they did it just as they executed the last play, by keeping the ball alive, refusing to cede the rebound until someone wrapped it up.
“It’s not how we drew it up but I knew if I could just get the ball toward my big guys, they’d have a chance,’’ Vanzant said.
A chance to get the game to 60.