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VCU's game plan undone by strong-willed Butler

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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HOUSTON -- Throughout the NCAA tournament, Virginia Commonwealth was able to impose its style against its opponent.

Against USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, the Rams could force turnovers and speed up teams when necessary, creating matchup problems opponents simply couldn't handle.

They couldn't do it against Butler, which won 70-62 in the first national semifinal Saturday.

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VCU shot 8 for 22 from 3-point range, forced only nine turnovers, had zero fast-break points and was dominated on the glass 48-32.

"Butler was the more aggressive team, and that was the biggest difference between this one and the last five," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "It had more to do with Butler than with us."

VCU's up-tempo style and intense ball pressure on defense had its moments, leading to quick starts in both halves. However, the majority of this game saw Butler dictate the tempo and pace by making shots and not turning it over.

When the Rams cannot score in transition and are forced to play in a half-court environment, their speed and athleticism are neutralized.

"They made some shots, and that made it hard to get the ball out," VCU guard Joey Rodriguez said. "When they make shots, they get back on defense."

Senior Ed Nixon added: "They did good with transition defense. They sprinted back and talked enough to get matched up quickly."

At the other end, Butler took excellent care of the ball when it counted. The Bulldogs had four turnovers in the first 10:19, but only five the rest of the way. VCU's pressure didn't faze Butler's experienced guard corps of Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant.

"I think they came into thinking they were going to make open shots against the press," Smart said. "And they did. They made some shots at the back end of the press."

Mack led the way for Butler with 24 points, while Matt Howard had 17 points on the inside.

The key constant in VCU's run to the Final Four was its unbelievable 3-point shooting. The Rams had made 12 3-pointers on three separate occasions, and were knocking down 43.8 percent of their shots beyond the arc heading into Saturday.

When Bradford Burgess made three 3-pointers early in the game, it looked like VCU's hot stretch would continue.

That soon fizzled; the Rams made only four of their next 14 3-point attempts.

"Our inability to get out in transition took away some of the 3-point attempts we typically have," Smart said. "They switched all our ball screens on our four-man. What it did for them is it took away open shots because they were switching and didn't have two guys guarding one."

VCU's incapacity to get rebounds on the defensive end was well-documented; the Rams ranked No. 321 in defensive rebounding percentage heading into the Final Four. What saved VCU in the NCAA tournament was opponents not taking advantage of second chances and wasting multiple opportunities.

Not surprisingly, Brad Stevens' disciplined and experienced group didn't fall into the same trap. Butler grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and converted them into 19 second-chance points.

It was only fitting that the clinching play came when Howard grabbed an errant Vanzant jumper and laid the ball back in to give Butler a six-point lead with under one minute remaining.

"Getting outrebounded like that, you aren't going to win many games," Bradford Burgess said. "They were the most physical team we played all year."

The recipe for beating VCU was clear going into the game. Butler needed to take the Rams out of their comfort zone by slowing the pace of the game down, controlling the glass, guarding the perimeter and taking care of the ball.

The Bulldogs managed to focus on all four areas -- and ended up winning every important battle.

For Butler, it's nothing new. The Bulldogs have an uncanny knack at imposing their will against opponents, something VCU was successful in doing the past 2 1/2 weeks.

When it came to a battle of wills, the more physical and experienced team prevailed.

As Smart said, "Butler's going to play the way they play."

More important, though, the Bulldogs didn't let VCU play the way it wanted to play.

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