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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.

 

Scary Staff

As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I must admit I'm concerned. It's not so much Boston's injuries and shaky start, but the teams at the top of the AL East. Tampa Bay and the Yankees are off to terrific starts and might be the top two teams in all of baseball.

Entering Wednesday's games, Tampa Bay, which led the division at 19-7, had the lowest ERA in the American League at 2.97. The Yankees were third at 3.38 and were already 10 games above .500 at 18-8. 

The Yankees have four starters pitching extremely well. C.C. Sabathia (4.1, 2.74), A.J. Burnett (4-0, 1.99), Phil Hughes (3-0, 1.44) and Andy Pettitte (3-0, 2.12) had a combined record of 14-1 and an ERA of 2.16. 

That's pretty scary. And imagine how good they'll be if Javier Vazquez, who is off to a terrible start, returns to his elite form of a year ago. This year's Yankees remind me of the 1998 team, which had superior starters who motivated each other and gave the team a chance to win every team it took the field. That team went 114-48 and won the World Series.

If the starters don't get hurt and keep pitching at a high level, the Yankees will win despite the early injuries to Curtis Granderson and Jorge Posada. I could see them winning 105 games or more.  

McGwire Steroid Use

A month or so ago, I was watching a replay of the 1989 ALCS between the A's and Blue Jays on ESPN Classic. It was stunning to see how thin most of the players seemed, compared with today's baseball players. It was just 20 years ago, but it seemed like an altogether different era when you looked at the much smaller and relatively unmuscled physiques of the athletes.

It was truly striking to see how Mark McGwire looked back then, in his early career. He seemed like a gangly kid, nothing like the pumped up, pimple-faced monster he was in 1998 when he hit 70 home runs to shatter Roger Maris' home run record.

I was suspicious of McGwire at the time, and unwilling to take part in the national lovefest when he and Sammy Sosa chased the home run record. It didn't seem legitimate to me. When the word broke that McGwire was using Androstenedione, a steroid-like substance that was then legal in baseball but banned in international sports and the NCAA, it confirmed for me that McGwire was a cheater. It didn't matter to me that Andro was technically legal. It gave him an unfair advantage and to me, that wasn't in the spirit of fair competition.

So now, after years of denying it, McGwire has finally admitted that he used illegal steroids for a long period of time. I'm unsurprised, and unmoved. I don't think they should remove his records. But I don't think he belongs in the Hall of Fame on merit. It has nothing to do with his steroid use. I just don't think he was a good enough all-around player to be a Hall of Famer. He was a freakish, one-dimensional player when he was hitting most of his home runs. Steroids or not, he didn't meet the standard for me.

Alomar Deserved It

When I heard that Roberto Alomar had narrowly missed election to the Baseball Hall of Fame today in his first year on the ballot, I felt the same way I did when Thurman Thomas got snubbed by the football voters in his first year of eligibility a few years back: 

It's an outrage. Alomar should have been a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer, just like Thomas. In each case, I suspect it was one notorious incident that prodded a small segment of voters to keep a worthy candidate off the ballot and make him wait a year before getting enshrined. Alomar is likely to get in on his second try, as Thomas did when he was voted in the football Hall two years ago.

Alomar spat in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck during a playoff game in 1996. Hirschbeck later forgave Alomar. They made amends and did off-field work together. Hirschbeck publicly advocated for Alomar. But it seems enough voters held the incident against him. Thomas, of course, lost his helmet before the start of Super Bowl XXVI and blew off one of the media sessions.

For my money, Alomar was the finest second baseman of the past quarter century. He was the best fielding second baseman I ever saw. During his days with the Blue Jays, he routinely made diving plays and threw men out from short right field. It seemed like he made at least one spectacular play in every game.

Alomar was also a terrific offensive player. He hit .300 for his career, .029 higher than Joe Morgan, who was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1990. He had more hits (2,724) and doubles than Morgan, and a higher slugging percentage. Alomar had 210 homers and 504 doubles. He won 10 Gold Gloves.
 
I thought Alomar should have won the AL MVP in both 1992 and '93, when Frank Thomas won the honor in back-to-back years. Thomas was essentially a DH. Alomar affected every game he played in with his bat, glove and legs. He was far more valuable to his team in those days. When the Jays and White Sox met in the playoffs, that became evident.

All I can say to the Hall of Fame voters is, "Boo." Alomar shouldn't have to wait a year. I don't understand the voters who make players wait a year. Either you think a player is a Hall of Famer or not.

(For Mike Harrington's take and a poll on the biggest Hall snub, go to the Inside Pitch blog)

Dust Him

A quick note on tonight's sixth game of the World Series. If the Yankees have any pride, they will take a shot at Chase Utley in his first time up. The Phillies have been throwing at Alex Rodriguez in the Series. I don't think there's any question about that. At some point, you need to retaliate. I don't care if it is the World Series. Apparently, the Phils don't mind putting A-Rod on base. Utley has five home runs in the Series. So what if they put him on first base? Plus, an early jolt of excitement could lift the Yankee Stadium fans and alleviate any of the lingering tension about letting the Phillies hang around in the Series.

The November Classic

Finally, the World Series begins tonight in New York. If it goes seven games, that means four of the games will have been played in the month of November. So maybe we should call it the November Classic. It's ridiculous. They should not play baseball in November. They're asking for trouble with the Series being played in two northeastern cities, New York and Philadelphia.

The season did start a bit late this year because of the World Classic. But there's no reason to have the extra off days during the playoffs. It extends the postseason and gives teams even more chance to use three-man rotations. Teams use five-man staffs during the regular season. It's a different game when you only need three starters. Bottom line, though, is the chance of cold, rain and even snow can compromise the quality of the baseball.

Anyway, my prediction: I think the Yankees have a decided edge against Philly's lefty dominated lineup. If the Yanks go to a three-man rotation, C.C. Sabathia could start three games. Andy Pettitte will start two games if it goes long enough. I would pitch Pettitte in Game 2, but they consider A.J. Burnett the No. 2 starter and I'm sure they would prefer to use Burnett, who is erratic, at home. The Phillies have a formidable offense, but it will be neutralized in this Series. The Yanks have better starters, better middle relief and the best closer in the game's history in Mariano Rivera.

Yankees in five.

Umpire Ineptitude

The brutal umpiring won't let up in this year's postseason. Last night, Tim McClelland had two colossal bonehead calls in the Yankees' 10-1 victory over the Angels. Fortunately, McClelland's gaffes had no significant impact on the outcome. But imagine if one of these bad calls occurs in a critical situation -- say, in the ninth inning of a deciding game of a World Series.

Football fans are familiar with such arguments. That's why the NFL instituted replay, so they could limit the number of bad calls in their sport. The NFL system isn't perfect, but it allows bad calls to be reviewed and overturned, bringing a measure of justice to a game that is very difficult to officiate.

It's time for baseball to do the same thing. They put in review on home run calls last season, which was a start. But they need to go further.  Why not give managers a couple of challenges a game, as they do in the NFL? They could challenge fair or foul ball calls (the Joe Mauer hit in the ALDS would have been overturned). I'd be for review of certain calls on the bases, too. McClelland called Nick Swisher for leaving third base too early on a tag up last night. It was clearly wrong. That play could be overturned. Also, he missed a play at third base when two Yankees were off the base and tagged out by Angels catcher Mike Napoli. Anyone with two eyes could see on TV that he had missed that call.

Even safe and out calls on the bases could be subject to review. It would have to be conclusive, as in the NFL. Some angles are deceiving on plays on the bases. Still, if a manager wanted to risk a challenge on one of those calls, why not? I would still be against replay of balls and strikes. The human element is still a justified part of the game when it comes to calling pitches. Otherwise, I think the calls are fair game. There are too many bad calls for baseball to sit there and do nothing.

Ticked Off by Walk Offs

What is this? The NFL? Suddenly, excessive celebrations after walk-off homers have become an issue in big-league baseball. The Brewers toppled like bowling pins at home plate last Sunday when Prince Fielder arrived at home plate after a walk-off bomb against the Giants. The Yankees, who seem to get a walk-off every other night these days, scuffle for the hero's helmet when he tosses it in the air at home plate.

These youthful displays of joy have, naturally, upset some of the more conventional baseball types. The Giants apparently were insulted by the Fielder celebration. Reliever Bob Howry said it showed a lack of respect for the opponent and -- are you ready -- The Game! Howry said it wouldn't be forgotten. Frankly, I'd forgotten that Howry was still in baseball.

My God, is it so awful to have professional athletes actually showing enthusiasm for their game? What's so wrong with a winning celebration? I'm sure kids love it. Baseball should be grateful for any display of life that could draw young fans into the game. This is entertainment. I get tired of hearing old-school grumps complain about teams celebrating together. They're the same tired thinkers who think players are "showing up" the game when they bunt for a hit during a no-hitter or take an extra base when their team is five runs ahead.

Lighten up!

Rice to the Hall

I was happy to see Jim Rice finally get his overdue election to the Hall of Fame. As a Red Sox fan, I had mixed feeling about him during his career and the early years after his retirement. He was a mediocre fielder -- though he did have a strong, accurate arm -- and didn't have an especially long career. But from 1975-86, Rice led the American League in every conceivable offensive category. He was the most feared right-handed hitter in the league. Until his body began to break down, he rarely left the lineup. Don Zimmer said he was afraid to take him out because teams pitched the entire Boston lineup differently when Rice wasn't in it.

The main reasons for not electing Rice before now were his poor fielding and the fact he made a lot of outs. I think his aloof and sometimes hostile relationship with the media hurt him, too. I heard a national writer say on the radio today that Rice was very slow. Please. Rice was fast enough to hit 15 triples in consecutive seasons. He was a good baserunner and an above average runner in his prime, before injuries took a toll. You don't hit 79 career triples if you're very slow. There are only four active big-leaguers with more than 79 triples.

In the end, I think the fact that Rice played before steroids got him over the hump. He might have been a churl at times, but he was pure. He was a physical freak in his day, without artificial help. It's scary to think what he might have been like if he had used steroids. Anyway, I have to think some of the voters who wouldn't elect Mark McGwire gave a vote to Rice instead. The notion of a "good guy" has been modified in the post-steroid era. Rice became a much better guy in retrospect because he was clean. If that's what it took to get him in, so be it. And it's not just drugs. The pitchers were better in Rice's day, and there were bigger ballparks. Manny Ramirez is seen as a lock Hall of Famer. He's a good comparison, a feared righty hitter who was flawed as an all-around player. I'll bet if Ramirez and Rice switched eras, their numbers would look a lot different -- and Rice would be the drop-dead Hall of Fame guy instead.

Rice only got 76.3 percent of the vote, so there are still people who think he doesn't belong. What do you think? Did he deserve it or not?



Premature Wake

I'll admit it. I missed it. The Red Sox pulled off the most amazing comeback in post-season baseball history and I wasn't watching. I left the Wellington Pub in the top of the seventh, with the Sox trailing the Rays, 5-0. Like most Sox fans, I figured it was over. So I went to my friend's house and watched a taped version of The Office. Then we watched a tape of Tim Russert's funeral. One of Russert's relatives played an amazing version of Born to Run. Then Springsteen did Thunder Road. It felt like a wake for this year's Red Sox.

So I come home and pop on the TV and it's still on TBS, and they're interviewing some Tampa reliever about their failure -- FAILURE! -- and I realized the Sox had rallied to win. I felt like an idiot. I still tell people about the night the Red Sox rallied to win Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. It was a Sunday night after the Bills beat Miami for their first win of the season. I stopped at Checker's and ran into Don Criqui, who had done the game that day. He was with an old friend from North Buffalo and still had his CBS jacket on. Some of my friends had their pictures taken with him behind the bar. The Red Sox never lost again that October.

Well, if they run the table again, I'll have this story to tell. The Office and Russert's funeral (we also watched part of an old Billy Joel concert). My girlfriend said it reminded her of the scene in Fever Pitch' where the Red Sox fan -- played by Jimmy Fallon -- goes out and misses them winning with 10 runs in the ninth inning.   

A few questions: One, assuming you're a baseball fan, did you give up on the game? Two, do you think the Sox will go on to beat the Rays, who have to be reeling? And three, do you have any personal memories of games where you stopped watching and something amazing occurred later?

Sports, you have to love it. Makes me wonder what sort of magic might be in store for the Bills and/or Sabres this season.


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