After another buzzer-beater, all looks familiar for Butler

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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WASHINGTON -- Matt Howard's face was once so bloodied he looked like an extra from a horror film. There was also the moment in last year's title game when he set a pick on Duke's Kyle Singler, and Singler was laid out horizontal-like. Before that game, there was the mild concussion after an elbow to his face. Or was it before the elbow?

This time, on this day, as the basketball seemed to hang in the air forever, and the path to the basket was clear and big-man free, there was no great moment of violence delivered or received. No blood. No elbow grease. Just the simple elegance of a standard hustle play.

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Old Dominion was trying to become the next Butler and had a chance, a real good one, with the score tied at 58 in the first game of the NCAA's Southeast Regional. When Shawn Vanzant missed a shot from the right, it was tipped into the air by Butler's Andrew Smith far to the left.

Howard stepped in quickly, snagged the ball, and put it back left-handed. Bang, bang. The entire episode took seconds, but it will add years onto Butler's growing legend after the Bulldogs beat Old Dominion 60-58.

"When I first saw the ball coming over there, I was thinking there is probably no time left," said Howard. "As soon as I caught it, I tried to shoot it as fast as possible. ... I don't know how close it was, but it was almost too close for comfort."

But that's the way they like it. Close, crazy, uncomfortable, and so here we go again with Butler. Last year, The Mid-Major That Could became the Mid-Major That Did. Can Butler be Butler again? Probably not, but if the game against Old Dominion is any indication, it's going to be fun to watch the Bulldogs try.

"I think a lot of the credit has got to go to Andrew," said Howard. "He made a great play keeping it alive. And my guy I think went with him on that jump. And it's pretty easy when it's just you and the ball and the rim ..."

They sure do like a bit of drama, eh? Butler's past three NCAA games have been decided by three or fewer points. In last year's run, the Bulldogs beat Michigan State in the semifinal 52-50 and lost to Duke 61-59 in the championship.

What Butler did against Old Dominion is what Butler has always done under coach Brad Stevens: win the rebound fight and play a style of basketball that destroys opponents with a steady trickle after trickle.

Don't mistake that last statement for the cliched hustle vs. athleticism nonsense. Butler has athletes. Outstanding ones. It also has karma, and when skill and karma combine, destinies can be altered, as Butler has already showed.

When asked if this Butler run was perhaps at the start of another moment, Stevens didn't duck the question, or offer a stock response. In fact, he seems to embrace the idea that this close win can help generate a Butler cloning process.

"I do think there is some validity to winning that way and there's no question that [we're] only 40 minutes into the NCAA tournament," he said, "but nobody will be more tournament tested by the [third round] than we will have been ...

"But I think that you have to believe and you have to give everything you have together. And if you do those two things, you got a shot. And our guys have proven time and again that you got a shot and that's all you want."

Here they come again.

Fail to believe at your own peril.

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