When the chips were down, Butler -- as he almost always does -- held all the right cards.
The senior forward played staggeringly effective defense on Dion Dixon on Cincinnati's last possession, doing just enough to deny an easy drive down the court without fouling. He forced Dixon into a travel that somehow wasn't called, but then harassed the guard enough to cause him to lose the ball out of bounds anyway.
And then, even despite losing his balance (and being fouled by UC's Lance Stephenson, according to Stephenson himself), he made the big shot when it counted. It wasn't the prettiest of 3-pointers in the Newark, N.J., native's career, but it was the most significant.
Let's be frank -- it was a somewhat lucky shot.
But great players create at least some of their own luck. Butler's perfect accuracy made up for the fact the off-balance shot was far too strong. It easily fell through after striking the glass. Stephenson even said he heard Butler call the bank when the shot was in the air.
That takes an amount of confidence few have on one of basketball's biggest stages. But with five game-winners already this season, Butler shouldn't lack in that department.
Even before the late-game heroics, he had a solid game. He ended with 15 points, six rebounds and five assists against only one turnover. Add the last two possessions to that kind of balanced game, and easy to see why Butler is West Virginia's most valuable player.
Until Butler pulled a bit more magic out of his proverbial hat, Jones was the front-runner for our top honors. After all, he exorcised his Madison Square Garden demons from a season ago by scoring a team-high 17 points and adding six rebounds.
And, again, before Butler took over the last 6.4 seconds of the game, it was Jones' lay-in that just beat the shot clock horn with 1:07 to go (more on it in a bit) that was the biggest play of the game.
The sophomore forward had to settle for sharing the spotlight with Butler, but the senior's heroics did nothing to diminish the importance of Jones' game.
That's characteristic of Jones' play, which always involves effort and intensity. But much to the delight of Mountaineer fans, the forward was also able to step back and hit his mid-range jumpers with relative regularity.
While West Virginia plays team basketball, it will go as far in March as the play of Butler, Jones and Devin Ebanks allow. The Mount Vernon, N.Y., native's performance Thursday night should help reassure fans that a better postseason than last year's is in the cards.
When Butler fell to the ground with just over a minute left, it looked like a turnover was all but a certainty. But he fell on the ball, covered it with his body and watched Jones' defender come to try to tie him up.
The senior controlled the ball just enough to uncork a pass to his left, where Jones was open. As precious tenths of seconds continued to waste away, Jones cleanly fielded the toss, leapt into the air and easily laid it off the glass and in just before the horn sounded.
It made the score 51-48 with 1:07 left and ensured that (barring a super-rare 4-point play) Cincinnati could do no better than tie.
That was especially important after Stephenson came down court and hit a 3-pointer to knot the game at 51 -- and even more important when Ebanks missed on WVU's ensuing possession and the team lost the ball out of bounds.
Instead of having to foul and send the Bearcats to the line to extend the game, Bob Huggins was able to call for a full-court pressure defense with 6.4 seconds left to keep UC from getting an easy game-winner. That led to Dixon's turnover, which set up Butler's game-winner.
It was more of the same from the two players we already honored above -- effort, intensity and basketball IQ. And that play, almost as much as Butler's buzzer-beater, is the reason why the Mountaineers are moving on to the Big East tournament semifinals.
It almost looked like the Bearcats' offense was built around missed shots when Mick Cronin and company knocked off Louisville in the second round on Wednesday. Time and time again, his players out-hustled the Cardinals to get extra opportunities.
Against a WVU team coached by Huggins, who extolls the virtues of defense and rebounding ad nauseum, that gap was non-existent.
The Mountaineers actually had three more offensive boards (17) than their opposition (14). Huggins and company led the second-chance points battle 18-10.
Sure, Stephenson (19 points and seven rebounds) and Yancy Gates (11 points, seven boards) made their impact felt.
But by limiting the ability of UC to get to the offensive glass, West Virginia ensured that other players wouldn't beat them. In a defensive struggle, it did just enough to win.