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It will take you about 2.2 seconds to read this sentence.
In the same amount of time on Saturday night in Washington D.C., Butler went from being on the verge of pulling the biggest upset of the NCAA tournament to being on the wrong end of one of the worst late-game fouls in recent tournament history to being on the receiving end of the absolute worst late-game foul in recent tournament history.
When the clock at the Verizon Center finally hit 0:00, the Bulldogs had stolen an improbable one-point win over the No. 1 seed thanks to an inexplicable over the back foul that occurred 85 feet from the basket with 0.8 seconds left in a tie game.
Seconds earlier, Butler appeared to be done. Shelvin Mack had committed an inane foul on Gilbert Brown as the Pitt guard was receiving an inbound pass with his team down one with 2.2 seconds left. All Mack had to do was force Brown into catching the pass and heaving up a contested prayer. Instead, he over-pursued the ball, laid a shoulder on his opponent and put him on the free throw line with a chance to win the game.
Brown hit the first and then missed the second. Butler's Matt Howard came down with the rebound. He was ninety feet away from his own basket with 0.8 seconds left. Overtime was inevitable.
Then a whistle halted play:
Just when you think you've seen it all, you see two completely unnecessary fouls in the final 1.4 seconds swing a game three ways. Butler had the win, then appeared to lose it on Mack's foul. Pittsburgh then looked good, except for Brown's inability to hit his second free throw. Overtime had to be next. It had to be! Who fouls a guy on a meaningless rebound with under a second left?
Nasir Robinson, apparently.
In the few hours since that foul, there's been a lot of talk about it and nobody, not even guys who have been associated with the game for decades, could remember ever seeing a foul like that. To ask "what was he thinking?" makes the huge leap that was thinking anything. More than likely, his instinct took over. Robinson went for that ball like he's gone for any other loose ball during his basketball career. It probably never occurred to him that leaving Howard alone would force the game into overtime. Heck, he probably didn't even consider the fact that Brown would miss the free throw.
Let's get it straight though: both were fouls. Mack made a mistake in pursuing the loose ball so hard on the sideline and Robinson made a bigger mistake in going over Howard's back on the meaningless rebound after the missed foul shot, but they were legit calls. Whether they should have been called is a different question altogether.
You'll hear a lot of people saying that a foul is a foul no matter when it's committed in the game and that's a bunch of bunk. If the first second of the game was like the last second of the game, teams would throw up desperation three-pointers after winning the tip. There's a time to blow a whistle and a time to keep it around your neck. The foul wasn't so egregious that we'd be talking about the buried whistle should the game have gone to overtime.
The word "unbelievable" gets thrown around a lot. Matt Howard's buzzer-beater against Old Dominion was "unbelievable." Morehead State's win over Louisville was "unbelievable." They weren't.
Surprising? Yes. Not to be believed? Hardly.
This was unbelievable. The wild turn of events in Pittsburgh-Butler was a whirlwind of bad decisions, questionable whistles and high drama. It was a 2.2-second stretch never before seen in NCAA tournament history and likely never to be seen again.
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- Matt Howard