His team's unprecedented
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
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."
The Bulldogs' grit is rooted in Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Shawn Vanzant, veterans of last season's Final Four, and Saturday they scored 52 points combined.
Meanwhile, Skeen (game-high 27 points) got little help. The lights-out 3-point shooting that had carried VCU throughout the tournament vanished as the Rams made a modest 8-of-22.
Sixth man Brandon Rozzell struggled most, scoring just two points, 12 off his tournament average.
"Shots that had been falling didn't," point guard Joey Rodriguez said. "A lot of in-and-outs. I almost felt like it wasn't supposed to happen."
Butler took command after a breathtaking second-half stretch that included eight lead changes. Mack shoehorned eight of his team-high 24 points into 90 seconds, and suddenly the Bulldogs led 52-45.
It was VCU's largest deficit of the tournament. How would the Rams respond?
As you knew they would. Four times VCU closed within four, and in the waning moments Skeen had a chance to narrow the gap to two. But his well-defended layup rolled around the rim and out.
Moments later, Howard's stickback made it 63-57 with 59 seconds left, sending Butler to its second straight title game.
"VCU's run was inspiring to a lot of people, including us," Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said. "The way that they played, the way that they really beat a lot of unbelievable teams handily was remarkable and probably made them the hottest team in the tournament coming into this game."
Hotter than Butler or fellow Final Four teams Kentucky and Connecticut.
"I think we've played as good of basketball as anybody in the country," Smart said. "Everyone talks about the way that we've utilized the media doubting us. I made the decision at the beginning of the NCAA tournament that we could either ignore what people were saying or we could go right back at 'em.
"And with today's social media, today's media, it's so hard to ignore. So our guys did a great job of sinking their teeth into that. And it brought our team closer together, brought our players really tight."
Rodriguez, the team's senior leader, put a bow on the season.
"I never thought we'd be in the Final Four," he said, "and the experience was great. I'm just proud of everybody. A lot of times tonight the game could have gotten away from us, but we didn't let it happen. I think that says a lot."