WASHINGTON – Just before the Butler Bulldogs left their Verizon Center locker room to win one of the greatest NCAA tournament games ever played, coach Brad Stevens turned to a board and wrote, "The game honors toughness."
He loves this phrase, having stolen it years ago from Paul Patterson, the longtime coach at tiny Taylor University in Upland, Ind., and has used it in countless pregame talks. He has made it his mantra, a belief that along with the greatest of fight – getting an extra rebound, a loose ball, a foul – the score somehow will go your way.
And when Butler guard Ronald Nored stood in the middle of that same locker room almost an hour after the Bulldogs had pulled out their second final-moment victory in three days, heading again to the Sweet 16, he thought of those by-then-erased words that had been on the board beside him.
"It's not luck," he told Yahoo! Sports, shaking his head as he spoke. "I think we're just the tougher team. That's how we have to be. If we didn't come here and play like that against the toughest teams, we would be embarrassed. We have that fire."
Then he paused.
"Winning is tough," he said.
There never has been an NCAA tournament game quite like the one Butler won over Pittsburgh 71-70 on Saturday night. There has never been an ending as unimaginable.
First came the basket that put Butler up a point with 2.2 seconds left. Then came a foul by Butler guard Shelvin Mack on Pitt's Gilbert Brown near midcourt as he tried to throw up a desperation shot with 1.4 seconds remaining. Brown made the first free throw but missed the second, the one that would have won the game. The Bulldogs' Matt Howard then grabbed the rebound and inexplicably was fouled by Pittsburgh forward Nasir Robinson with eight-tenths of a second left.
Howard then made his first free throw, the one to win the game, and the Butler players once again joyfully ran off the floor and toward their locker room in the back corner of the arena's basement.
"New Orleans!" they screamed.
New Orleans is the site of this week's Southeast Regional and the place the Pitt Panthers must have been certain they were headed once Brown was fouled. But Pitt might be the most star-crossed of the top basketball programs, always on the verge of greatness, always falling short.
When the door finally opened to Pitt's locker room, Robinson, a junior, sat at his locker, still dressed in his uniform. His eyes were red. He knew the blame for this would be placed on his shoulders, and he admitted as much in a hushed voice.
"I'm smarter than that," he said. "I have been playing this game too long to make a dumb mistake like that."
But the tournament is the cruelest of athletic events, putting 20-year-old kids in impossible situations that will define them for the rest of their lives. In a matter of seconds Saturday night, Nasir Robinson became the fool and Matt Howard bathed in yet another heroic glow. Pitt once again was exposed as an imposter and Butler reaffirmed its reputation for toughness.
"That was just stupid," one Butler player said as he watched a replay of the Robinson foul. "I don't know what he was doing."
The few remaining players and coaches in the winning locker room chuckled softly. It was a laugh of agreement, yet also a laugh of relief because no matter how much they talked of diligence and heart, they knew they could have been the stupid team had Brown made both his free throws or Robinson not dropped a forearm on Howard's shoulder.
Still, the game does honor toughness and Butler has built some kind of shell around itself. It has slain so many giants in the past two tournaments and was a shot away from the national title last spring, and now is two victories away from another Final Four.
Pitt is a rugged team, one that grappled its way through a brutal Big East schedule to be the best team in that conference and the top seed in this region. But the Panthers lost in the last seconds in a conference tournament quarterfinal to Connecticut last weekend and in the most agonizing of ways Saturday night. Because of those two bitter losses, the stamp of "soft" again was stuck across its name.
Undeserved but nonetheless the reality, as Butler found yet another way to win a game it probably never should have won.
Later, long after they had stared blankly at the carpet in their locker room and Robinson suddenly couldn't answer a question as tears poured from his eyes and his voice disappeared, the Pitt players gathered themselves and began the long walk down the circuitous pathways beneath the Verizon Center. Robinson was in the middle. He wore a blue Pitt cap. His eyes still were moist and red.
They turned a corner and there stood Howard, regaling reporters with yet more stories of an amazing win plucked from the ether. Robinson didn't glance at Howard, instead staring straight ahead as he moved toward the exit. Only there was a mistake, and they needed to go back toward the locker room none of them wanted to ever see again. And so, once more, Robinson had to make the horrible walk past Howard.
It seemed so terribly unfair, the defeated and scorned having to keep trudging past the victorious and smug.
But the game again rewarded Butler for finding another elusive win.
As Brown had said a few minutes before in the somber Pittsburgh locker room, "Sometimes, that's how the cookie crumbles."
- Matt Howard