Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
HOUSTON – Before Butler played VCU in the national semifinals Saturday at Reliant Stadium, Ronald Nored tried to fire up teammate Shelvin Mack with some choice words.
“I actually told him before the game that some of the [VCU] guys were talking trash to him and told him that they said that he wasn’t anywhere as good as some of the guys they had guarded before,” said Nored, who didn’t score a single point.
“They had played against [guys from] Kansas. They had guarded E’Twaun Moore [of Purdue] and Shelvin was nothing compared to them.”
Then Nored paused and added with a smile, “I lied.”
The VCU players never said anything of the sort, or at least not within earshot of Nored or Mack. Yet the ploy had the desired effect.
Mack scored 24 points on 8 of 11 shooting – including 10 straight during a critical second-half stretch — and made 5 of 6 3-pointers to lead Butler to its second straight NCAA championship game with a 70-62 victory over the Rams.
“I kind of knew he was lying ’cause otherwise I’m pretty sure some of my friends or somebody would have told me,” Mack said with a smile. “But he just said that [Ed] Nixon said I wasn’t the best player he guarded this tournament. That kind of motivated me deep down inside, but I kind of knew he was lying.”
After losing to Duke in last year’s national championship, Butler (28-9) will get another crack Monday night against either Big East champion UConn or SEC winner Kentucky.
“I think this year we know what we have to do,” Nored said. “Last year we were still at a point where we were pretty excited just to be here and this year we’re excited to be here but now that we’re here we have business to do. We have a job to do.”
With the game in a back-and-forth pattern, Mack took things over by hitting back-to-back 3 pointers and adding a drive and a jumper to extend a 44-43 lead to 54-47.
“I’m not an NBA guy,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “I don’t know how any of that works but I would take Shelvin Mack for my team just as quick as I would take any of the other guards in the tournament.”
VCU twice got within four points but never within one possession.
Matt Howard continued his trend of hitting huge baskets near the rim.
Having already hit a putback to beat Old Dominion, 60-58, in the first round and then adding a free throw with .8 seconds remaining to upset No. 1 Pittsburgh, 71-70, Howard scored on a putback layup to extend the Butler lead to 63-57 with 59. 3 seconds left.
The collective effort of Mack and Howard (17 points, eight rebounds) was enough to overcome a tremendous performance by VCU senior Jamie Skeen, who poured in a game-high 27 points on 10 of 17 shooting, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc.
Skeen, who chose VCU over Seton Hall and South Florida upon leaving Wake Forest in fall 2008, had 19 3-pointers all season and made 17 in this dramatic postseason run.
Now Butler is back in the championship game for the second straight year, becoming the first team from a non-power conference to do since Houston in 1983 and ’84.
But the mood is different this year. They’re not overwhelmed by the moment, not just happy to be here.
“Yeah, you could say that,” Mack said. “You know, we wasn’t able to win the game last year. That’s in the back of our minds. Nobody just comes to Houston for one game, we came here for [two]. So me and my teammates are going to do a great job of getting rest tonight. Get some film in tonight after dinner and get ready for Monday.”
Said Howard: “Yeah, I agree with Shelvin. I think it’s a focused locker room. We realize that there’s still a game to be played, hopefully another game to be won. That’s what we want to do and we’re going to prepare to do that.”
And that might involve Nored lying to Mack one more time.
(Photo courtesy Getty Images)
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.