Butler continues Cinderella run
INDIANAPOLIS — Kansas — gone.
Kentucky — gone.
Syracuse — gone.
Little Butler — still going.
How’s that for a Hollywood hoops script. Call it “Hoosiers,” the sequel.
Gordon Hayward had 19 points and nine rebounds, including one with 2 seconds left that sealed the game. The small school looked anything but, taking down another of college basketball’s biggest names with a 52-50 victory over Michigan State in the Final Four on Saturday night.
Butler (33-4) now plays Duke in Monday night’s title game afer the Blue Devils beat West Virginia 78-57. In its hometown, no less.
“We’ve been talking about the next game all year, and it’s great to be able to say the next game’s for a national championship,” Hayward said.
The entire Hoosier state is along for the ride. Indiana and Purdue may be the state’s traditional basketball powerhouses, but it’s little Butler — enrollment 4,200 — that’s big time now.
“If I was not playing, I’d be a Butler fan,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I like they way they play, I like their story. They play like a Big Ten team.”
Michigan State (28-9) has been living on the edge all tournament, ravaged by injuries and squeaking through game after game, and this night was no different. After trailing by as much as seven in the second half, Draymond Green made a pair of free throws to pull Michigan State within 50-49 with 56 seconds left.
Ronald Nored missed a jumper, and Michigan State got the rebound. But Hayward wouldn’t give the driving Green an inch, forcing him to put up an awkward layup that didn’t come close. Nored scooped up the rebound, and Green had no choice but to foul him, ending the big fella’s game.
Nored, who had been just 3 for 12 from the line in the tournament, made both, and the Bulldogs had a 52-49 lead with 6 seconds to play.
“One thing about us is there’s never a sense of fear,” Nored said. “We’re confident in everything we do.”
After a timeout, the Spartans inbounded the ball and Butler was all over them, choosing to foul rather than take a chance on the Spartans getting off a 3 — like they did to beat Maryland at the buzzer. Korie Lucious made the first and bricked the second as Hayward came up with the ball to seal the victory and set off a party the likes of which Indiana hasn’t seen since tiny Milan beat Muncie Central for the state title in 1954, the real-life inspiration for “Hoosiers.”
“I don’t know if I got a piece of the ball, maybe a piece of his arm,” Hayward said. “I’m just glad we got that last stop.”
Although the Bulldogs are no plucky underdog, there’s no doubting the connections between “Hoosiers” and Butler’s magical run. In the movie, the final score was 42-40. The actual Milan final score — 32-30.
And Saturday night, 52-50, extending the nation’s best winning streak to 25 — and counting.
Watching it all unfold was Bobby Plump, whose buzzer-beating jumper gave Milan the win.
“We might not have believed it when we said it in our first team meeting in the fall, but if we focus and do our jobs, then why can’t we play for a national championship?” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “That’s been our focus all along. I walked out of that room and I kind of thought, ’I hope we’ll get a chance to do this.’ This is a great story.”
And it gets better with each game.
Butler knocked off top-seeded Syracuse and followed with a victory over No. 2 seed Kansas State last weekend, the only Final Four team to beat the top two seeded teams in its region.
Just as Stevens did against the Orange and Wildcats, he found Michigan State’s weakness and went after it. The offense-by-committee that had worked well enough without injured Kalin Lucas, who led the Spartans in scoring until blowing out his left Achilles’ tendon in the second-round victory over Maryland, fell apart against the Bulldogs.
Durrell Summers, who had averaged 20 points in Michigan State’s first four tournament games, was held to 14. Green had 12 as did Lucious, who was playing in place of Lucas. Senior Raymar Morgan, who spent most of the game in foul trouble, finished with just four points.
Butler also forced fellow No. 5 seed Michigan State into 16 turnovers and held the Spartans to zero — yes, zero — fast-break points. The Bulldogs outrebounded Michigan State on the offensive glass, 11 to 8.
Perhaps most shocking, they outmuscled the bigger, bulkier Spartans and have the battle scars to prove it. Hayward had a bloody lip by the time the night was over. Matt Howard got knocked silly in a collision with Green. Shelvin Mack spent most of the second half on the bench with cramps in his legs, and Stevens was unsure of his availability for Monday.
Want to know what The Butler Way is? Just watch a tape of this game.
It wasn’t the prettiest of finishes. Butler went almost 11 minutes without a field goal after Willie Veasley’s layup with 12:19 left — and it almost seemed as if the first team to score a basket was going to win.
But the Bulldogs weren’t flustered to be playing on the game’s biggest stage and locked down whenever they had to.
“It did seem like it was a long time,” said Hayward, who had only six points in the second half. “But for us, as long as we guard, we feel like we can be in the game. That’s what we’ve tried to do all year.”
The finish was a bitter disappointment for the Spartans, who had hoped to get back to the national title game after being routed by North Carolina in Detroit last year. Instead, they’ll have to watch another group of local boys delight the hometown fans. No team has won the national title in their home state since UCLA in 1975, when the Final Four was down the road from Westwood in San Diego.
When Hayward came up with that final rebound, Lucas Oil Stadium shook, the kind of celebration usually reserved for Peyton Manning.
“We didn’t get it done,” Izzo said. “I thought the physical play bothered us — that surprised me.”
Or maybe all those injuries simply caught up to the Spartans.
“You keep putting yourself on the edge of a cliff, you’re not going be able to stand on it long,” Delvon Roe said.
The biggest loss, of course, was Lucas, Michigan State’s point guard and the 2009 Big Ten player of the year. But Chris Allen has a bad foot, and Roe is playing on a torn meniscus in his right knee, so painful he says it’s like someone’s doing surgery on him while he’s playing.
As if those weren’t big enough holes to fill, the Spartans were fighting foul trouble all night. Morgan, the lone senior starter, played just eight minutes the first half after picking up three fouls, and was shuffling in and out all second half. Roe also finished the game with four fouls.
“That was probably the biggest problem with our game today. We just couldn’t get into a rhythm because we had too many people in foul trouble,” Roe said. “When you’ve got so many people in foul trouble, you can’t play as aggressively as you would like to on defense and even on offense, you’re scared to shove a guy or make a move, because you’re afraid to make a foul.”
With a baby face, Hayward easily could be mistaken for a fictional Jimmy Chitwood. But this kid is the real deal and could play on any team, big or small. He can shoot inside, outside, and he’s not afraid to do the dirty work, leading Butler with nine rebounds.
If not for his and Shelvin Mack’s play in the first half, the Bulldogs would be heading back to their dorm rooms instead of a downtown hotel.
Hayward scored Butler’s first four field goals, and he and Mack were the only Bulldogs to make anything from the field in the first half. Veasley? He was 0-for-2. Nored? Didn’t even get off a shot. Mustached Matt Howard? He took a seat six minutes into the game after getting whistled for his second foul.
Yet the Bulldogs managed to hang with the Spartans, going into halftime tied at 28 after Mack’s 3 with 35 seconds left.
The second half belonged to Butler and its defense.
“People have been doubting us all year and said we were going to lose in the first round, but you don’t pay attention to what other people say,” Butler guard Shawn Vanzant said. “You listen to the 15 guys who are here and the coaches. We don’t listen that. We believe in ourselves.”
And with this latest victory, they’ve got a whole lot of other people believing in them, too.
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