WASHINGTON — The players in the Butler locker room celebrated their latest stunning upset in the NCAA Tournament by screaming, exchanging high-fives and hugging each other.
Across the arena, Pittsburgh forward Nasir Robinson sat in front of his locker with his shoulders slumped. His voice was barely audible.
“I take the blame, man. I take the blame for the loss,” Robinson said, referring to the pivotal play in Butler’s 71-70 victory over the top-seeded Panthers on Saturday night.
Matt Howard made one free throw with 0.8 seconds left to cap a wild final sequence that enabled No. 8 seed Butler (25-9) to advance to the round of 16 and deal Pittsburgh its latest painful exit from the NCAAs.
Each team had a chance to win it from the foul line in the last two seconds. After Butler’s Shelvin Mack inexplicably fouled Gilbert Brown near midcourt with 1.4 seconds left, Brown made the first try to tie it.
He missed the second, and Howard was fouled by Robinson while grabbing the rebound — a foul even more unnecessary than the one that preceded it.
“I’ve been playing basketball my whole life; I know I shouldn’t have done that. It was a stupid play,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t the ref’s fault. It was my fault.”
Robinson tried to answer another question but got choked up and just shook his head before putting a towel over his head.
When Howard grabbed the rebound of Brown’s miss, it appeared the game would be going to overtime because the Bulldogs were out of timeouts. Then Robinson stuck his arm into the fray.
“I was really surprised,” Howard said. “I felt his arm come across mine, so I just threw the ball to the rim.”
Howard made the first shot and then intentionally banged the second attempt off the rim.
And soon after that, Butler was rejoicing at midcourt.
Mack scored 30 points for the Bulldogs, who used a string of upsets to reach the championship game last year. Butler has won 11 straight overall and is 7-1 in its past eight NCAA Tournament games.
The 30 points were two short of Mack’s career high and a Butler tournament record. He shot 10-for-16, including 7-for-12 from 3-point range.
Unlike Robinson, he got to laugh about a foul that never should have happened.
“It was the dumbest mistake of my life,” he acknowledged.
The Bulldogs next face No. 4 seed Wisconsin in the Southeast Region semifinals. No matter what happens, it will almost certainly be tame compared with what Butler went through in Washington.
In their tournament opener, the Bulldogs used a tip-in by Howard to beat Old Dominion at the buzzer. Then came this one, in which Butler blew a 12-point lead and had to rally from a five-point deficit over the final 10:37.
“We’re not better than Old Dominion. We’re not better than Pittsburgh,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “We just had the ball last.”
Pittsburgh (28-6) was seeking to reach the round of 16 for the sixth time in 10 years. Instead, the Panthers became another victim of Butler magic.
Pitt has made the NCAA Tournament in 10 straight seasons but never gotten past the round of eight. This team loses four seniors, including Brown, center Gary McGhee and guard Brad Wanamaker.
“Anytime we’ve lost in the tournament, there’s been no good losses,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “We’ve just got to keep working harder and keep having great years and keep putting ourselves in a position that we’re in.”
Brown finished with 24 points, but he will forever remember the missed free throw.
“Everything could have been avoided if I make a free throw and Nasir doesn’t foul,” he said.
Robinson will probably never remember he scored 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting. He blamed himself for the loss, but his teammates did not.
“It’s not like he did it intentionally or anything,” Brown said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s a hustler. He was just trying to make a play out there, trying to help the team win.”