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Howard's free throw pushes Butler past Pittsburgh

Butler BulldogsBilliards, Snooker and PoolPittsburgh PanthersBasketballNCAA Men's Division I Basketball TournamentShelvin Mack

It all looked familiar. There was Butler scrapping against a No. 1 seed and bulling -- make that bulldogging -- its way into America's consciousness.

Little more than a year after ending their season a half-court prayer away from a national title against No. 1 Duke, the eighth-seeded Bulldogs (25-9) made Pitt the first No. 1 seed to fall Saturday night in the NCAA tournament.

The Bulldogs won it, 71-70, on senior forward Matt Howard's free throw with 0.8 seconds left. Howard missed the second on purpose and the Panthers were unable to get off a final shot before the buzzer.

Howard's free throw capped an improbable final sequence in which the game swung -- twice -- on officials' calls in the final two seconds. Each foul was stunning in its own way.

"We're not a better basketball team than Old Dominion or Pittsburgh. We just had the ball last," said Butler coach Brad Stevens, whose only regret was that such a well-played game may be overshadowed by debate over two foul calls. "You hate to see a game end that way."

Butler guard Shelvin Mack (30 points, including seven 3-pointers) was called for a foul for bumping Gilbert Brown along the sidelines as Pitt (28-6) raced to get a shot trailing 70-69 in the frenetic final seconds. "I probably had the worst foul in Butler history," said Mack, smiliing weakly.

Brown, a career 74.1 percent foul shooter entering the tournament, made the first free throw to tie the game with 1.4 seconds left. He missed the second. Howard was fouled by Nasir Robinson as he grabbed the rebound and tried to fling the ball downcourt with 0.8 seconds left.

"Nas was just trying to make a play," Brown said of the foul that was surprising since Butler was 90 feet from the winning basket. "It's not like he did it intentionally or anything."

Mack was noticeably talking to Brown as Brown made the first critical free throw but missed the second. "I just asked him where he was from," Mack said. "Just simple questions -- just to talk to him a little bit. I told him I was from Lexington (Ky.) and had a 3.0, just stuff like that."

Junior guard Ronald Nored jumped into Howard's arms after Howard hit the free throw to win a game in the final seconds for the second time in three days.

Asked about the officials' late-game calls, crew chief John Higgins said, according to a pool report: "We do it every day. It just happened to be a crucial part of the game. You have to do what you have to do as an official," Higgins said. "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.''

Butler now plays the Kansas State-Wisconsin winner on Friday in New Orleans.

Neither Stevens nor Pitt coach Jamie Dixon criticized the end-of-game calls. "I think they'll be a lot of talk about it, but we had a very good crew," Dixon said. "We'll never talk about the officials in a negative manner."

Stevens focused on Howard's "heady" play that helped him get fouled. "Right when Matt caught it, he threw the ball at the other rim," Stevens said.

Every time Pitt threatened to pull away in the second half, it seemed Mack hit a big 3. His seventh 3-pointer of the game tied it at 60, and Howard's reverse gave the Bulldogs a 62-60 lead with about 5 minutes left.

Butler led by as many as 12 points in the first half. The Panthers caught up behind the shooting of their guards. Senior guard Brad Wanamaker's jumper made it 43-41, Pitt's first lead since the opening minute.

Pitt knew it was in a battle immediately. Butler began by hitting eight of its first 11 shots -- including four of five 3-pointers -- to take a 20-14 lead. Two of the 3s were by Howard, the hero of Butler's final-second win over Old Dominion on Thursday.

There were plenty of Panthers fans at Verizon Center. But most of the rest of the crowd was predictably behind Butler. The Bulldogs may have won 10 games in a row entering Saturday's play, but they were still underdogs against the large, talented Panthers.

Dixon called Butler "as physical a team as we'll play all year -- probably the most physical team." Still, Butler struggled to stay with Pitt -- ranked No. 2 in the nation in rebounding margin -- on the boards.

But the Bulldogs stayed in the game behind the shooting of Mack, who had four 3-pointers and 16 points as Butler took a 38-30 lead at the half.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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