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Shawn Vanzant's late rebound not splashy but still big for Butler Bulldogs

Butler’s Shawn Vanzant, a former Wharton High standout, stretches for one of his four rebounds in the second half.

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Butler’s Shawn Vanzant, a former Wharton High standout, stretches for one of his four rebounds in the second half.

INDIANAPOLIS

This was the moment. This was the dream.

The clock is winding down in the Final Four. The world is watching, and the crowd is screaming.

This is exactly how Shawn Vanzant has pictured it in his mind since he was a little kid.

You know, except for the part about being sprawled on the floor next to the cheerleaders.

"Every kid pictures himself making the big jump shot at the end of the game," Vanzant said. "You don't dream about getting an offensive rebound.

"But I'll take it."

The kid from Tampa did, in fact, take it. And that's one of the biggest reasons Butler held off Michigan State 52-50 Saturday evening and is one victory away from becoming one of the most unlikely NCAA Tournament champions in history.

"The national championship game," Vanzant said. "I'm having trouble even saying the words."

So maybe the play did not have the panache of some game-winning jumper. And it's probably hard to imagine Vanzant's rebound ending up on the cover of Sports Illustrated or on a box of cereal.

But make no mistake, there might not have been a more important play for the Bulldogs.

At the time, Butler had gone more than 10 minutes without a field goal. A seven-point lead had been reduced to a 48-46 advantage with less than two minutes remaining. This was the setting when Bulldogs star Gordon Hayward set up for a shot in the left corner.

Vanzant, who was given the benefit of the tape measure's doubt when listed at 6 feet, was at the top of the key when Hayward let the ball fly. Vanzant took off for a spot to the right of the hoop, figuring a missed shot would bounce in that direction.

He jumped at exactly the right moment and snatched the ball away from teammate Avery Jukes. Then, while flying through the air on his way to disaster, Vanzant spotted Hayward and passed the ball before crashing to the ground behind the basket.

Hayward buried his second shot, which turned out to be the only field goal Butler scored in the final 12 minutes.

"I don't know where he came from," Hayward said. "To have the guts to go up and get the ball, and then the presence of mind to get it over to me, is just phenomenal."

The play, in a way, is the perfect summation of Vanzant's career. Recruited as a high-scoring guard out of Wharton High, Vanzant has never been much of a scoring threat in college. Instead, he has thrived as a role player.

He was the starting point guard for the first four games of the season but has been coming off the bench ever since. He comes in for defense. For rebounds. For all the dirty work that coaches love.

"That's something I have a lot of pride in," said Vanzant, who finished with four rebounds, two assists and one point in 18 minutes. "I don't think of myself as being a great shooter or a great ballhandler. But I'll make the hustle plays. That's what I'm thinking when I go in a game."

It was that kind of game for Butler. The Bulldogs got out of synch early in the game, heaving up one 3-pointer after another. Fourteen of their first 24 shots were 3-pointers.

Once Butler settled in and began playing with more patience on offense and more tenacity on defense, the momentum began to swing. The Bulldogs got eight steals in the final 21 minutes and outscored Michigan State 19-9 at one stretch.

"It's all about getting stops," guard Ronald Nored said. "We had people like Shawn making tough plays. Shawn had, I don't know how many rebounds he had, but it seemed like he was getting them when we needed them."

Still, Butler was not safe in the final minutes. Vanzant said he didn't even realize how big his rebound was until the game ended and all of his teammates began praising him for it. Well, all of them except for Jukes.

"That was my rebound," Jukes said in mock indignation, while sitting at the locker next to Vanzant. "Everybody should be talking to me about it."

Vanzant grinned, leaned forward and paused for effect before cracking on his 6-8 teammate.

"You should get some hops," Vanzant said.

For a player who has spent most of his college career in the shadows, this was the moment of Vanzant's life. The 21-year-old junior has had games with far better statistics, and he has had games where he was expected to carry a heavier load.

Yet all of those games led to this moment. This opportunity that will forever be a part of his Final Four story.

Even if it wasn't a game-winning jump shot.

"It was just an excellent play, excellent hustle play," Hayward said. "Those are the plays Coach (Brad Stevens) talks about all the time. Those are going to be the plays that get you the win.

"I think that was definitely one play that Coach will be showing forever on video clips."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Shawn Vanzant's late rebound not splashy but still big for Butler Bulldogs 04/04/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 4, 2010 1:27pm]

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