HOUSTON – Unheralded Butler and traditional power Connecticut will play for the collegiate national basketball championship after winning their semi-final games of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.
Butler, a tiny liberal arts school in Indianapolis from the little-known Horizon League, booked a spot in the title game for the second consecutive year by beating fellow upstart Virginia Commonwealth 70-62, while Connecticut edged Kentucky 56-55 in a match-up of two of the nation's most successful programs.
The championship will be played on Monday.
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun watched Butler's 76-74 victory over top-seeded Pitt in the third round of the Southeast Regional and was impressed.
"I've seen what they have done to Pitt, which is one of the best teams in America," he said. "We are going to have a heck of a challenge on Monday."
With Connecticut (31-9) leading 54-52, Kentucky junior guard DeAndre Liggins misfired on a potentially game-winning three-pointer with five seconds remaining.
Two free throws by the Huskies' Shabazz Napier hiked the lead to 56-52 with two seconds left before Kentucky's Brandon Knight hit a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Connecticut's Kemba Walker scored 18 points and had seven assists and six rebounds but the junior guard had an off-night shooting, hitting only six of 15 from the floor.
"It's an amazing feeling," Walker said after the victory. "It is a little surreal right now but hopefully we can bring it (the title) back to Storrs."
Kentucky freshman Knight who had an outstanding tournament, scored 17 points but shot a horrid six of 23, including three of 11 from beyond the arc.
In the earlier game, guard Shelvin Mack scored 24 points for Butler (28-9) on eight of 11 shooting from the floor, including all of the Bulldogs' points during a key 10-4 run that turned a one-point lead into a 54-47 advantage with less than nine minutes left.
Forward Jamie Skeen paced VCU (28-12) with 27 points, while guard Bradford Burgess added 15.
"Two really good teams," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "VCU has a lot to proud of. They inspired a lot of people, including us.
"They played terrific all the way through. We were fortunate to pull that one out. We had guys making individual plays time and again that were crucial."
Butler (28-9) won the game with a 48-32 advantage on the boards, and the ability to secure most of the loose balls, leading to a 19-6 advantage on second-chance points.
Matt Howard scored 17 points for Butler, hitting just three of 10 from the floor but cashing in at the line, where he connected on 11 of 12. The junior forward had six points in the final minute to secure the victory.
Zach Hahn scored eight straight points early in the second half for Butler to keep the Bulldogs close enough until Mack took over.
"Last year we didn't get it done," said Mack, who hit five of six from beyond the arc. "So that was in the back of our minds. My team mates did a great job of getting me the ball."
Butler opened the season 14-9 -- including 6-5 in the Horizon League -- losing to relative lightweights Milwaukee (twice), Youngstown State and Valparaiso.
But the Bulldogs turned their campaign around and have now won 14 successive games.
VCU (28-12) had to beat Southern California in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament just to make it in to the main draw. They then upset Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Southwest Division top seed Kansas to reach their first Final Four.
"We're just a big family," said Skeen, a 6-foot-9 (2.09m) senior. "This whole season was great. It was a great run. We made history. We kept making history. We went deep into the tournament and we did what everybody said we couldn't do."
Butler lost the title game to Duke 61-59 last year when a potential game-winning 50-footer by Gordon Hayward smacked the backboard and glanced off the rim at the buzzer.
Hayward, who was a sophomore, jumped to the NBA and the most people believed he took with him the Bulldogs' chances of retuning to the national stage.