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Live Blogging from VCU-Butler

End of game: Butler defeats VCU,  70-62, and earns a second straight trip to the national championship game on Monday night at Reliant Stadium. The Bulldogs will play the winner of  tonight's second semifinal between Kentucky and UConn.

Shelvin Mack led the Bulldogs with 24 points. Matt Howard had 17 and eight rebounds. Jamie Skeen of VCU led all scorers with 27 points. Butler outrebounded the Rams, 48-32.

30.5 seconds left in the second half: Butler is up, 67-59, and appears on its way to a second straight trip to the national finals. The Bulldogs played with much more poise down the stretch, its Final Four experience showing in the end. The Rams' rebounding woes hurt them again, too, as Matt Howard put in an offensive rebound after VCU had cut the deficit to four.

2:32 left in the second half: Butler took a 61-54 lead on a huge three-pointer from the left corner by Shawn Vanzant. Shelvin Mack had the ball 25 feet from the basket, dribbling away time, then leaped and heaved a cross-court pass to Vanzant, who drained the three. Matt Howard is back on the floor for Butler and playing tentatively. But Jamie Skeen swished a three at the other end and was fouled on the play by Ronald Nored. So Skeen, who leads all scorers with 25 points, has a chance to complete a four-point play and cut the deficit to three.

It's 61-57, Butler. Wow.

5:58 left in the second half: Butler leads, 56-52. The Bulldogs have played the last 3:24 without Matt Howard, who picked up his fourth foul on a hoop by Jamie Skeen. Shelvin Mack scored after Howard left, giving him 10 straight points, as Butler took a 54-47 lead. Then Joey Rodriguez rattled in a three-pointer for his first points of the night. Shawn Vanzant hit a pullup for Butler, then Darius Theus answered on a give-and-go layup. It'll be interesting to see how long Brad Stevens waits to put Howard back in the game. VCU has been going at him all night, so Stevens will probably wait until we're inside four minutes.

9:39 left in the second half:  Shelvin Mack picked up where Hahn left off, scoring eight straight points to give Butler its biggest lead of the night, 52-45.

11:53 left in the second half: Butler has ridden an unlikely hot hand to a 44-43 lead. Reserve guard Zack Hahn scored eight points in a row, including a pair of three-pointers, for the Bulldogs. Hahn hadn't scored eight points in any game in his last 10 and had been five for his last 29 on threes.

15:41 left in the second half: At the regular TV timeout, Butler is up, 36-35. Matt Howard scored low after an inbounds pass. Reddic, a tad giddy after his five points earlier in the half, threw up a ghastly brick from the top of the key. VCU coach Shaka Smart will likely get Jamie Skeen back in now. Skeen has three fouls, but they need the guy. Coaches too often keep star players on the bench with three. Let him play through it. Butler is now winning the boards by 10, 29-19. Sure enough, Skeen is back on the floor.

16:22 left in the second half: VCU goes on a 7-0 run to start the half to take a 35-34 lead.  So Butler will trail in the second half again. The Bulldogs have trailed in the second half of eight of their last nine NCAA tourney games. Juvonte Reddic, a 6-9 freshman, gave the Rams a big lift off the bench after Jamie Skeen picked up his third foul on a dumb over-the-back on a rebound. Reddic scored low to cut the deficit to 34-33, then hit a shot from the top of the key to give VCU the lead. Matt Howard has missed two more three-pointers and is 0-for-5 from distance on the night. Another miserable three-point shooting night by a VCU opponent in the tournament.

Halftime stats: Butler is shooting just 33 percent from the field (10 of 30), but the Bulldogs have nine offensive rebounds and are winning the battle of the boards, 22-16. VCU looks like the team with the 298th best rebound margin in America. Butler is outscoring VCU from the line, 11-2, largely because of all the second-chance opportunities. Simple game sometimes. Matt Howard has five rebounds and two steals for Butler -- including a crafty steal of an inbounds pass late in the half.

End of first half: Butler leads, 34-28, after a strong defensive finish to the half. The Bulldogs forced a tieup on one VCU possession, got a steal in the low post on another, and finally forced normally poised VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez to heave a long cross-court pass into the Butler bench with 2.4 seconds left in the half. Shelvin Mack leads all scorers with 13 points for Butler. Jamie Skeen has 12 and Bradford Burgess nine for VCU. Matt Howard has nine for Butler -- seven from the foul line.
 

3:52 left in the first half: Butler takes its first lead since the early moments as Shelvin Mack nails a three-pointer on the break to make it 25-24. VCU is getting some good looks down low. Jamie Skeen, who had 12 points, scored twice in a row on post-ups over Matt Howard. Butler was getting beaten down low against Florida in the regional final in the early going, too. Somehow, the Bulldogs have a way of staying in games. This game has been very reminiscent of last year's national semifinal, when Butler played a ragged and low-scoring first half against Michigan State.

7:50 left in the first  half: VCU leads, 17-15, after a pretty sloppy exchange of possessions. Jamie Skeen made a nice lefthanded running hook in the lane to snap a long scoreless drought by the Rams. Butler has struggled on a couple of offensive trips against the swarming VCU defense. The Bulldogs definitely are not the same offensive time with Ronald Nored, a defensive ace, running the show.  

10:15 left in the first half: Butler has rallied to tie the game, 15-15, on the strength of some offensive rebounding. That's not a shock -- VCU is rated 298th in the country in rebound margin and it's their Achilles heel. The Rams have gone cold from the field. They haven't scored since Bradford Burgess hit a three to makeit 15-7.  Butler got four free throws from Matt Howard, a put-back from Andrew Smith, and another rebound basket by sub Kyhle Marshall to tie it. It's an 8-0 run and Marshall, who was fouled on his tip-in, has a chance to put Butler ahead with the free throw. He misses it.

14:57 left in the first half: The teams are playing at a very quick and entertaining pace. VCU got off to a cold start, but went on an 11-0 to take an early 11-7 lead over the Bulldogs. True to their NCAA tourney form, the Rams came out firing from long range. They finally got in rhythm as Bradford Burgess, Jamie Skeen and Burgess again hit threes to lift VCU from an early 5-0 deficit to a 9-5 lead.

Butler had a couple of turnovers early against VCU's aggressive defense. They barely averted another against VCU's full-court press. Looks like we're in for a good one. Keep in mind, Butler has trailed in the second half of eight of its last nine victories in the NCAA Tournament.

HOUSTON -- We're about 10 minutes from tipoff here in Reliant Stadium. Have a third-row press seat right next to my old NBA pal, Bob Ryan. The place is buzzing, as is always the case before the first national semifinal. I like to say the first two days of the NCAA Tournament (I mean Thursday and Friday) are the best days in sports. But there's a special buzz before the start of a Final Four.

The starting lineups:

VCU (28-11)

Joey Rodriguez, 5-10 senior guard

Bradford Burgess, 6-6 junior guard

Ed Nixon, 6-4 senior guard

Jamie Skeen, 6-9 senior forward

D.J. Haley, 7-0 freshman center

BUTLER (27-9)

Shelvin Mack, 6-3 junior guard

Shawn Vanzant, 6-0 sophomore guard

Chase Stigall, 6-4 sophomore guard

Matt Howard, 6-8 senior forward

Andrew Smith, 6-11 sophomore center

Whatever happened to starting two forwards? I'm expecting we'll see a lot of Butler's junior guard Ronald Nored. Nored started last year and is one of the top defensive guards in the country. I can see Brad Stevens using him early and often to check Joey Rodriguez, the terrific point guard for VCU.

 

Final Four

HOUSTON -- Welcome to Reliant Stadium, where the most improbable Final Four matchup in NCAA Tournament history will be contested between Butler and Virginia Commonwealth about 80 minutes from now.

It's a shame one of them has to lose.  There's been talk that the "real final" is the second game between traditional powers UConn and Kentucky. But I wish Butler and VCU could be playing on opposite sides of the bracket. They would have a genuine chance to win and meet one another for the title Monday night.

This game should be a dandy. It's hard to distinguish between the teams, which have both peaked at tournament time and will be very confident tonight. Butler has won 13 games in a row and has Final Four experience on its side. All of its key players were part of the team that lost to Duke by two points in last year's memorable title game in Indianapolis.

VCU became the first team to win five games to reach this point, having been one of the last at-large teams situated in the First Four games in Dayton. But the Rams have beaten five straight teams from BCS schools: USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas in that order. They've outscored their opponents by a staggering 12 points a game in the NCAAs. That's amazing when you consider the quality of opposition.

Here's the key question: Will VCU-Butler be decided behind the three-point line, or under the backboards?

If it becomes a three-point contest, VCU is in good shape. The Rams have made 30 more threes than their opponents in the tournament. That's a huge difference -- 18 points a game. That's because they've been so good defending the arc. In five games, opponents have shot 23 percent from three-point land against VCU. Kansas shot 2-for-21 in the regional final. Purdue went 8-for-25, Georgetown 5 of 26. It can't be a coincidence.

Butler has shot just 31.7 percent from three in four NCAA games. The Bulldogs are a better shooting team than that. They shot 35.5 percent during the season. Matt Howard, their 6-8 senior forward, has become a threat from long range this season. Howard, who made just five three-pointers in his first three seasons at Butler, is 52 of 122 this year (42.6 percent). There's some talk that Howard has made himself a borderline NBA prospect by expanding his range as a shooter.

VCU is a poor rebounding team. If the Rams do not do a good job on the boards, they could be in trouble. They were 298th in the nation in rebound margin this year, normally a fatal flaw at tournament time. But they've made it to the Final Four despite being outrebounded by four a game in the tournament, which is their average. They cant allow Butler too many second chances, because that can also lead to fouls.

Well, I'm just hoping for a great game, something worthy of these two remarkable teams.

I'll be blogging live from courtside during the game.

 

Major Talents

HOUSTON -- It's a pretty well-established fact that the non-BCS teams retain more of their players than the teams from the elite conferences, which often have players leave school after spending only the mandated one year in college basketball before leaving for the NBA.  

But Butler coach Brad Stevens made a very interesting point when someone brought that issue up to him during Friday's  media sessions in Reliant Stadium. Here's what Stevens said when he was asked about the advantages of having players who stay in school  instead of "one and dones".

"I think that might be a little overblown in this matchup," Stevens said. "Larry Sanders from VCU and Gordon Hayward from Butler both left early and we're sitting here. I think that's a remarkable story that I haven't read or nobody's talked about, that you lose guys to the first round of the NBA draft at non-BCS schools and you're both in the Final Four."

Great point, Brad. It is amazing that two of the so-called mid-majors had a player taken in the top 15 of last year's NBA draft (12 of the top 15 picks were from BCS programs) and still made it this far. Hayward went ninth to the Utah Jazz after leading Butler to the Final Four in his sophomore season. Sanders went 15th to the Milwaukee Bucks after his junior year.

Hayward and Sanders have had very similar success as NBA rookies. Hayward, a 6-8 forward, is averaging 4.2 points in 14.9 minutes a game. His playing time has increased since the Jazz traded all-star guard Deron Williams. Sanders, a 6-11 power forward, is averaging 4.6 points in 15.2 minutes.

Imagine where Butler and VCU would be if both had stayed in school. The Final Four, perhaps?

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