The CBI semi-final provided a rare opportunity for Butler to host to Big East opponent, with the Pittsburgh Panthers visiting Hinkle Fieldhouse. My review of the records indicates that this was just the second-ever appearance from a foe who was a Big East member at the time of their visit, with the first such matchup occurring last November when Louisville beat the Bulldogs in this season's second game.
For most Butler fans, the anticipation of this game gave us a brief opportunity to recall last year's contest against Pitt. Of the ten NCAA tournament wins leading up to Butler's championship game appearances in 2010 and 2011, it was the Pitt game that generated the wildest swings in emotion. The final seven seconds of that game produced joy, then deep despair, then elation, and left me emotionally drained.
For Butler's then first-year play-by-play announcer Brandon Gaudin, this was a very early opportunity to earn his broadcasting bona fides, and he did not disappoint. In my view, which may be sacrilegious to some, his call of the Nasir Robinson foul on Matt Howard rivaled a famous call from almost sixty years earlier. In SAT parlance, Russ Hodges : THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! :: Brandon Gaudin : THEY CALLED A FOUL ON PITTSBURGH!
I know my reaction to that foul call was not too dissimilar to Leo Durocher's reaction in the third-base coach's box.
"In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times." - Winston Churchill
I hate to equate Our Game with something as unseemly as politics, but the NIT, CBI, and CIT do allow 76 teams the opportunity to die twice (considering that the Great West tournament winner did not technically die in getting their automatic berth to the CIT). I already wrote my obituary on Butler's season, and so I don't quite understand how to view these CBI games occurring during this bizarre after-life period. Given that this game was played in an 84-degree Hinkle, and given that the 800 Games Project reports on Butler's two prior CBI games both commented on the extreme heat felt during those games, I had to wonder, at least in a metaphoric sense, whether participating in the CBI was like being condemned to Hell.
I suppose I'm thinking a bit too much about the meaning of the term #ghostbrackets.
In this game, Pitt scored first off a layup by last year's goat, Nasir Robinson. I'll have to admit that even I was glad to see him get off to a good start in this game. Butler clawed back and took a lead midway through the half, and maintained a small lead until just before halftime when Pitt's J.J. Moore hit a superhoop to give the Panthers a two-point lead at the break. Throughout the first half, I noticed that Pitt was getting a number of open looks, but they were failing to convert on almost all of them. I wondered when the Law of Large Numbers was going to kick in, and how Butler would be able to keep up on the scoreboard when it did.
In half two, we saw more of the same. Butler got a lead, and maintained a margin of between three and five points through most of the second half. Still, there were signs of concern. While successfully containing Robinson and Pitt's leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, the Bulldogs often found themselves out of position to rebound and occasionally a step behind defensively - these weren't major flaws, but simply the "gives" that come out of a give-and-take approach. In one particularly frustrating sequence, Pitt pulled down four offensive rebounds on a single possession, concluding with two made free throws by Talib Zanna. Still, Pitt could never take full advantage of the opportunities presented to them, and was never able to seize the lead.
With just under six minutes to go, holding a 46-41 lead, Brad Stevens called for the 21st century version of the stall strategy. Using nearly all of the shot clock on almost every possession, Butler reduced the efficiency of its offense, but also limited the number of opportunities for Pitt to cut into the lead. It almost worked. A couple of turnovers allowed Pitt to tie the game at 49, but three Khyle Marshall free throws sandwiched around an offensive rebound by Roosevelt Jones on a missed free toss put the lead at 52-49 with just 46 seconds remaining. A missed defensive switch on a screen allowed Pitt's Lamar Patterson an open look from superhoop range, he connected, and the score was tied again.
Continuing the trend, Butler held the ball for the last shot. They weren't able to get anyone open, and finally got the ball to the freshman Jones, who barreled down the lane and drew a blocking foul on Pitt's Moore. As Jones prepared to step to the line for two free throws with the score tied and four seconds remaining, I was overcome by déjà vu.
Déjà vu moment #1 - Butler vs. Pitt, 2011 NCAA tournament (see above): with less than a second remaining in a tie game, Butler's Matt Howard stepped to the line for two free throws; he made the first, intentionally missed the second, and Butler escaped with a victory.
Déjà vu moment #2 - Butler at Evansville, 2011-12 season opener: with less than a second remaining in a tie game, Butler's Andrew Smith stepped to the line for two free throws; he missed them both, and Butler went on to lose in overtime.
My goddess hear my darkest fear I speak too late It's for evermore that I wait Dear friend goodbye No tears in my eyes So sad it ends as it began
"White Queen (As It Began)" by Queen
Sadly, Jones missed both free throws, and this season ended just as it began. In the last five minutes of regulation and in the overtime, Pitt made the plays it needed to win, and Butler did not. During that stretch, Pitt made eleven of its twelve free throws, and Butler made just seven of its fourteen. While Pitt's two stars, Gibbs and Robinson, were limited to a combined total of just two points (on Robinson's first score of the game), the rest of the Panthers did just enough to come away with a 68-62 overtime victory.
So, I bid my Butler team goodbye for this season, doing so with sadness but with no tears in my eyes, for I used up all of those tears a few weeks ago in Valparaiso when they died their first death.
PITTSBURGH 68, at BUTLER 62 03/21/2012
PITTSBURGH 20-16 (5-13) -- L. Patterson 4-11 3-4 13; A. Gibbs 0-8 0-0 0; T. Woodall 3-8 5-6 12; N. Robinson 1-8 0-0 2; J. Moore 4-10 5-6 14; T. Zanna 6-9 3-4 15; C. Wright 3-5 0-0 6; D. Taylor 3-3 0-0 6; J. Johnson 0-1 0-0 0; M. Gilbert 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-63 16-20 68. BUTLER 22-15 (11-7) -- C. Hopkins 4-12 0-0 9; A. Smith 7-13 4-6 19; R. Nored 1-5 2-4 4; R. Jones 1-5 1-4 3; K. Marshall 8-12 6-10 22; A. Barlow 0-2 0-0 0; K. Woods 0-2 2-2 2; C. Stigall 1-3 0-0 3; E. Fromm 0-4 0-0 0; G. Butcher 0-1 0-0 0; E. Kampen 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-59 15-26 62.
Three-point goals: PITT 4-15 (N. Robinson 0-1; L. Patterson 2-5; T. Woodall 1-4; J. Moore 1-4; J. Johnson 0-1), BUTL 3-18 (R. Nored 0-1; C. Stigall 1-3; A. Smith 1-4; E. Fromm 0-1; C. Hopkins 1-7; A. Barlow 0-2); Rebounds: PITT 38 (L. Patterson 10), BUTL 33 (K. Marshall 8); Assists: PITT 15 (L. Patterson 7), BUTL 15 (R. Nored 4); Total Fouls -- PITT 19, BUTL 16; Fouled Out: PITT-None; BUTL-None.