- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Matt Howard stepped to the line while bedlam and hysteria broke out around him.
One side of the Verizon Center booed its displeasure; the other screamed its joy.
Pittsburgh players, who just seconds before were euphoric, now stood with faces paralyzed in disbelief.
Butler players, who only seconds before stood frozen, smiled in euphoria.
“It was weird, I was really calm,’’ Howard said.
He was a lone resident of that island.
Emotions were stripped bare in Butler’s 71-70 upset of No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, leaving even the winners feeling like wrung out dishrags.
Pitt players sat quietly at their lockers, staring into the distance. They were more lost than hurt -- trying to figure out how they could lose a game that they should have won, or at least sent to overtime, with two seconds remaining.
In Butler’s quarters, there was joy but just as much head-shaking as the Bulldogs tried to figure out how they won, lost and won again all in the span of three seconds.
“I can’t believe it,’’ Butler's Ronald Nored said. “I’ve never felt like that in a game before in my life. I don’t even know what to say.’’
For Pittsburgh, a team that missed the Final Four on an end-to-end buzzer-beater two seasons ago, the loss adds another improbable finish to its resume of woe.
“I’ve never been through anything so crazy,’’ said Gilbert Brown, whose terrific game (24 points on 8-of-11 shooting) will instead be remembered for the single missed free throw in five chances. “It’s hard to fathom what just happened to us. I can’t really explain it.’’
There were actually three acts to this grand finale, an operatic drama that packed more action into 10 ticks of a clock than some teams can cram into a season.
Pitt had the ball and a 69-68 lead, but instead of bleeding the clock for a good shot, Ashton Gibbs heaved a disaster after the shot clock already expired.
With eight seconds left, Butler inbounded the ball to Shawn Vanzant and the player who set up the winner against Old Dominion appeared to do it again. He drove down the right side of the lane and dumped the ball to Andrew Smith. The sophomore laid it in and Butler led 70-69 with three seconds left.
“Here I am, I think we won it after Andrew’s shot,’’ Howard said. “And there were still two more possessions. How does that happen?’’
How it happens is two great players make bad decisions and an officiating crew thrusts itself into the endgame maelstrom, calling two fouls in the final three seconds that put an anticlimactic finish on a game that deserved better.
“We do it every day,’’ crew chief John Higgins said. “It just happened to be a crucial part of the game. You have to do what you have to do as an official.
“If we get it right, we’re good. If we get it wrong, we’re deadbeats and we’re all over SportsCenter. We did what we think is correct.’’
The truth is, it was the two teams that made the mistakes.
After Smith’s would-be game-winning basket, Pittsburgh threw the ball in toward the sideline, right in front of the scorer’s table and Shelvin Mack went with Brown when he went for the ball.
The ball went out of bounds but before it did, official Terry Wymer raised his hand, signaling foul.
“I was so mad at myself,’’ Mack said. “I went to the huddle and my teammates were telling me to keep my head up, but I couldn’t believe it.’’
Until that point, Mack hadn’t just been Butler’s hero, he’d been their superhero. He scored 30 points and absolutely dismantled Pittsburgh’s defense from behind the arc, where he hit 7-of-12 3-pointers.
When the foul was called, Brad Stevens looked as upset as the preternaturally calm coach has ever looked, throwing his arms and grimacing toward the officials.
But the Bulldogs have long has been a team of no excuses. Yes, their budgets are smaller. Yes, the odds are against them. But no, they don’t really care. So while they may have been stunned that the officials sent Brown to the line with two seconds left, they weren’t complaining.
“I told Shelvin, there’s absolutely no way he can put himself in that position,’’ Nored said.
Added Stevens, “If he was impeding his progress to get the ball, then it’s a foul.’’
Brown went to the line and sunk the first free throw to tie it at 70. But then the 78 percent free-throw shooter missed the second.
In between shots, Dixon elected to keep his players under the basket, rather than pulling them back, a decision that seemed harmless at the time but later would prove fatal to his Panthers’ season.
“Everybody is going to question that, but I did what I thought we should have done,’’ Dixon said. “I wanted our shooter comfortable and I didn’t want to be pulling our guys off the line while he was going for his second shot.’’
As Brown’s missed freebie fell to the right side of the rim, Howard went up to get it. Nasir Robinson came up behind him and when the two landed, Antinio Petty raised his fist.
He had called Robinson for a foul 92 feet from the basket, putting Howard on the line for two free throws with 0.8 left on the clock.
The crowd, still reeling from the call against Mack, howled its disapproval while the officials checked the monitors to make sure the call and foul came before the buzzer.
They did and so Howard went to the line. He hit the first, intentionally missed the second and the game was over.
Afterward, a disconsolate Robinson -- who sobbed through an interview and had to stop after just three questions -- was not angry.
“I blame myself,’’ Robinson said. “I’m smarter than that. I have been playing this game too long to make a dumb mistake like that. I blame myself.’’
If anyone can appreciate how Robinson and Pittsburgh feels, it is Butler.
As the Bulldogs ready for their third Sweet 16 run in the past five years, they aren’t so callous as to not empathize with their latest victims.
Eleven months ago, they sat dumbstruck in a locker room in Indianapolis, their shot at glory, and no less than history, missed by the fraction of an inch.
“I really feel for them because I know what it’s like,’’ Howard said. “We just sat there and couldn’t believe we had lost. I can’t imagine going out the way they just did, but I know how they feel.’’