HOUSTON – Shelvin Mack and Zach Hahn are not easily confused.
In appearance or in style of play.
Mack is a ball-dominating point guard, a penetrator with deep range on his jump shot. He’s built like a full back which allows him to bull his way to the rim and bounce off of defenders. He’s developed a reputation for hitting big shots in the clutch, meaning he is just as strong mentally as he is physically.
Hahn may as well be Mack’s polar opposite. He’s a scrawny, left-handed jump shooter. He had taken all of 32 shots from inside the arc this season coming into tonight’s game. The muscle definition in his arms is reminiscent of an 11 year old’s.
But it was Hahn who sparked, and Mack who carried, the decisive run in Butler’s 70-62 win over VCU in the first semifinal on Saturday.
After VCU went on an early run, but had regained control of the game late in the first half, taking a 34-28 lead into the break. But another hot VCU start — they opened the second half on a 11-2 run — had the Rams in a position to take control of the game.
Cue Zach Hahn.
The senior hit a three with 13 minutes left in the game to put the Bulldogs up 39-38. After VCU went back ahead by two, Hahn drilled another three. Brandon Rozzell gave VCU the lead back, but Hahn hit a tough, up and under layup with 12:22 left in the game that gave the Bulldogs a 44-43 lead.
All told, Hahn scored eight straight points. Coming into tonight, he had hit four shots and scored nine points in the four tournament games.
“There’s certain guys that think they should be playing in these games,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the game. “He’s one of those guys. He just has a mindset of, ‘When I’m open, I’m gonna make it’. I’m gonna take big ones.”
“He’s not the most athletic guy in the world. He’s not the biggest guy in the world. But there’s a reason why he’s playing major minutes in the national semifinals. Just another great senior in this program.”
Butler never trailed again after Hahn made that up-and-under layup.
And while Hahn deserves the credit for getting Butler back into the lead, this game was won by Mack. Two possessions after Hahn hit that layup, Mack drilled a deep three to extend the Butler lead to four points. After two Skeen free throws, Mack hit another three. After a driving layup and a tough, fadeaway 15 footer from the wing, Mack had scored 10 straight points and given the Bulldogs a 54-47 lead with less than nine minutes left.
VCU never got closer than four the rest of the way.
“An incredible basketball player, he has a will and determination that’s unlike some other guys,” Matt Howard said after the game. “You know, he many times has carried this basketball team, and that’s still playing within our offense.”
“That’s what Shelvin is, he’s a great basketball player. Again, you saw evidence of that again tonight.”
Howard is exactly right.
Mack is not as highly regarded as his point guard counterparts playing in the second semifinal. He’s not going to be an NBA player. His physical limitations are the reason that a kid from Lexington — a kid that turned out to be a college all-american — didn’t end up at Kentucky.
What makes Mack special is his heart. His leadership. All those cliched sayings that coaches have about “intangibles” and “things you can’t teach”? That’s all Mack. At some point, you have to look past how tall a player is or how high he can jump. Mack is a shot maker. He is the kind of player that a coach not only can trust, but wants, to have the ball in his hands late in a game.
“He was a killer tonight. He stepped up and made some huge, huge shots, particularly from behind the arc,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said after the game. “He’s a high-level player. I think he’s as good of a college basketball player as any of the guards in the Final Four.”
“I’m not an NBA guy. I don’t know how all that works. But I would take Shelvin Mack on my team just as quickly as I would take any of the other guards that played in this tournament.”
All told, Mack finished with 24 points on 8-11 shooting from the floor and 5-6 from three. But for how well he shot the ball, Mack had just a single assist. It came with 3:04 left in the game. With just six seconds left on the shot clock, Mack drew the VCU defense and gave the ball up to senior Shawn Vanzant. Vanzant buried a three that put Butler ahead 61-54.
It was arguably the biggest bucket of the game.
That’s why Brad Stevens trusts, and wants, the ball in Mack’s hands at the end of the game.