Loss to Butler stings, but VCU run is still incredible

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His team's unprecedented NCAA tournament march halted, its national championship hopes dashed, VCU coach Shaka Smart searched for context.

The assignment was tougher than any history exam he encountered in college.

The Rams had just lost to Butler 70-62 Saturday in a Final Four semifinal. They'd just bid farewell to four seniors.

Emotions were raw, the sting fresh. How to express?

"It's a phenomenal run," said Smart, a magna cum-laude history graduate of Kenyon College. "It's really an historical run in the NCAA tournament. … These guys are never going to be forgotten."

They shouldn't be.

VCU was the most improbable Final Four squad ever. They sneaked into the tournament courtesy of an expanded field and proceeded to confound pundits and, perhaps, themselves with five victories over more renowned programs, including past national champs Georgetown and Kansas.

Most remarkably, VCU encountered precious little adversity en route to Houston. The Rams dismissed Southern California in a play-in game and knocked out heavyweights Georgetown, Purdue and Kansas by double-digits.

Sure, they needed overtime and a last-second layup to survive Florida State in the Southwest Regional semifinals. But VCU led for much of the game and was facing an opponent unaccustomed to tournament pressure.

Not so Saturday. The Rams encountered a gauntlet of hurdles, foul trouble and an unkind rim among them.

Most damaging, they encountered Butler, a fellow mid-major steeled by last season's Final Four and agonizing title-game loss to Duke.

The Bulldogs, simply, were tougher and better.

"I think for the majority of the game they were the more aggressive team, and that made the difference," Smart said. "That was probably the biggest difference between this game for us and our last five.

"I think it had more to do with Butler, though, than with us. Our guys fought and battled."

Butler punished VCU on the boards, 48-32, and scored 19 second-chance points to the Rams' six.

The Bulldogs' fierce board work was typical. In their tournament opener, they became only the second team this season to outrebound Old Dominion, the national leader in rebounding margin.

Butler was as poised as strong. After Jamie Skeen's 3-pointer drew VCU within 61-57 inside of three minutes, the Bulldogs scored six consecutive points.

"They're probably the most physical team we played all year," Rams guard Bradford Burgess said, "and it showed today."

"Hands down the second-chance points," forward Ed Nixon said of VCU's downfall. "Too many times they outhustled us or we didn't block out."

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