LEXINGTON, Ky. -- This could have been a Butler story, but it's not. And it really, really could have been. Maybe should have been. Butler senior Rotnei Clarke was as hot as he's been all season, and Clarke is one of the best pure shooters in college basketball. When he gets hot, holy smoke ...
And he was smoking. With 15 minutes still to play, Clarke had 24 points. He was on pace for 40, and Butler was beating Marquette by nine, and this was going to be a Butler story.
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But it's not. It's a Marquette story, a Vander Blue story, a story about an NCAA tournament that will continue without Butler. It will continue into the Sweet 16 with Marquette and its cocky star, Blue, who was blowing kisses as he was erupting in the second half to lead Marquette to a 74-72 comeback victory against the Bulldogs.
Blue scored 19 of his 29 points in the second half, including a trio of 3-pointers that told three different stories of the Marquette rally.
The first one came early in the half, with Marquette trailing 36-29 and Blue still trying to shake the attack dog who had been hounding him all game, Butler's Alex Barlow, a 5-foot-11 sophomore who didn't allow Blue a 3-point attempt in the first half. Blue finally got one early in the second half and drilled it, and as he backpedaled he blew Barlow a kiss.
A few minutes later Blue shot another 3-pointer, but he didn't like this one. As soon as it left his hands he was charging the rim, which the ball hit hard and bounced high before falling through the net. By that time Blue was there to catch it. Marquette was within 46-44.
With 1:18 to play Blue shot a 3-pointer over Barlow, and when this one went down the game was tied at 69.
Still it could have been a Butler story, but Butler was playing the wrong team. It was playing a team as tough as it is, as resilient, maybe even as well coached. Butler's Brad Stevens is the genius, the future Hall of Famer -- two phrases used Friday by Marquette's Buzz Williams, of all people -- but Williams is no joke. Even if he likes to play the role.
Williams is the dancing fool who nearly triggered a riot with a postgame jig at West Virginia and was at it again Saturday night, celebrating the win at midcourt as his two young sons watched him shimmy. The same day he was calling Stevens a "genius," Williams was calling himself a "clown" and "an emotionally high-strung savant." That was Friday.
On Saturday, after the victory, Williams distanced himself even farther from X-and-O expertise, telling the media: "I don't want to be a genius. I don't want to be Mr. Tactician. I don't want our program known in that regard. I don't want to be tactical -- I want to be tough."
Tough luck on that one, Buzz -- seeing how you got the better of Stevens down the stretch.
Well, he did.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger Stevens fan than I am, but in the final six seconds Butler had two shots at the lead but Marquette, coached by the emotionally high-strung clown, sniffed them out and shut them down.
On the first try, with Butler trailing 74-72, Clarke dribbled into the frontcourt and was immediately double-teamed. Nobody switched when Butler set a screen. Everyone in the vicinity for Marquette had been told to rush Clarke, because he was going to shoot and Buzz Williams knew it. About 30 feet from the basket, fading left and defended by two taller players, Clarke hoisted an air ball with 5.5 seconds left.
After two free throws by Marquette's Davante Gardner, a basket by Butler's Andrew Smith and a Davidson-like turnover by Marquette -- an ill-advised pass in the backcourt that sailed out of bounds -- Butler had one last chance for the win. There were 2.9 seconds left, and the shot was going to Clarke. Everyone knew it, even if Clarke had cooled off, as in frozen solid, since scoring his 24th point with 15:10 left. He hadn't scored since, going 0-for-6 from the floor. In fact, after that 3-pointer gave him 24 points, Clarke grabbed his right (shooting) wrist and nearly sank to his knees in pain. Time was out, but Clarke wasn't in the Butler huddle. He was on the other side of the court, holding his wrist, being tended to by a trainer.
Even so, even cold and maybe injured, Clarke was going to take the final shot. Marquette knew it and doubled him on the inbounds pass with 2.9 seconds left. Clarke wasn't an option, so the pass went to the 6-11 Smith, a center who was 16-for-55 (29.1 percent) on 3-pointers this season. Smith caught the ball about 25 feet from the basket, but it wasn't right. He had neither his balance nor an open look, and when he tried to dribble into open space he stumbled and heaved the ball hopelessly toward the basket.
The shot wasn't close, the horn sounded, and Smith kept stumbling toward the other side of the court. His mouthpiece was hanging from his mouth as he dropped to a crouch, where he stayed until teammate Emerson Kampen came for him. Kampen walked Smith toward the tunnel, where Stevens was waiting to pat him on the back as he walked past.
A few minutes later the Butler locker room was open and the media were surrounding Clarke, and he was trying to talk but not getting very far. His eyes and nose were red as he said of his decision to transfer from Arkansas to Butler for his senior season, "This was the best experience I ever had."
Clarke stopped there, choked up. The media waited 30 seconds, a minute. Then he started talking again.
"To be able to share memories with these guys ... my goal was to get here, and I feel like I let the guys down. That's all I can say."
Clarke buried his chin in his chest and bawled, and the media backed away. I waited until he finished crying, then asked about his wrist.
"It's fine," he rasped. "I'm fine."
Down the hall, Marquette was meeting the media at the podium. Williams was fiery and feisty, using the moment to refuse to answer questions about his tactics, and to distance himself from being a tactician in any event, and somehow spinning off from that issue to bemoan the state of the media and the posers -- "they're garbage," Williams said -- who use Twitter to build an audience and earn undeserved "swag." It was beautiful because it was Buzz.
This game was beautiful because it was close, and it was physical, and it came down to the final seconds and a handful of coaching decisions in the NCAA tournament. Which means this is a Butler kind of game. But Butler's story is finished.
A few more chapters to go for Marquette.