SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - It's an easy five-mile drive from the
Butler campus to the site of its next game, in downtown
Indianapolis. Still, it's hard to think of many programs that have
taken a longer, more unlikely road to the Final Four.
Yes, the boys from Butler did it - defeating Kansas State 63-56
in the West Regional final Saturday to make their trip back home
something much bigger than that.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs, the team that plays in the fieldhouse
where "Hoosiers" was filmed, are writing their own underdog
story, even if they can't really be called underdogs anymore.
Gordon Hayward scored 22 points and Shelvin Mack had 16 to help
Butler (32-4) win its 24th straight game and become the first
school from a true, mid-major conference to make the Final Four
since George Mason in 2006 - a trip that also ended in
Trailing almost the entire game, No. 2 Kansas State (29-7)
rallied to tie it at 54 with 3:09 remaining. But Butler didn't
fold, it only got better. The Bulldogs scored the next nine points
to seal the game before K-State guard Jacob Pullen's shot at the
buzzer dropped - but offered no consolation.
Enrollment at Butler is in the 4,500 range, about 15 of whom
have reminded everyone why college basketball captures America's
heart this time every year.
They are weaving a story about the overlooked and
under-appreciated getting their time in the limelight, the kind of
tale every underdog, from Charlie Brown to Gene Hackman, has to
But make no mistake - this is not some scrappy, overmatched team
that needed a break, no Danny and the Miracles, or Villanova
shooting 79 percent to knock off mighty Georgetown.
This is a team that stood toe-to-toe with Syracuse on one night,
then Kansas State the next, shutting down two power teams from
power conferences with legitimate stars of their own.
Pullen and teammate Denis Clemente didn't score a point for
Kansas State until 15 seconds were left in the first half, and it
was no matter of luck. Rather, it was the tough, in-your-face
defense of Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley that did it - smothering
a pair of players who had combined for 53 points two nights earlier
in a double-overtime win against Xavier.
Clemente finished with 18 and Pullen with 14, but they shot a
combined 11 for 30.
Lucky teams also don't win the way Butler did. Much like in its
63-59 victory over Syracuse, the Bulldogs held the lead in this one
for most of the night, but fell behind briefly toward the end.
Clemente made a 3-pointer with 4:49 left to cap an 8-0 run and
give K-State its only lead of the game, 52-51. Teams like Butler
are supposed to fold then, right?
Well, not quite.
Hayward got fouled going to the hole and made two free throws to
take the lead back, and teammate Matt Howard made one more free
throw to make it 54-52. Clemente dribbled for what seemed like
forever for a layup to tie, and that was the last significant
basket the Wildcats would make.
Butler took the lead on the next possession when Hayward - that
rare NBA prospect playing at a mid-major - stretched his entire
6-foot-9 frame to not only collect a too-high, alley-oop pass from
Nored, but collect himself and make the shot.
Pullen came back with an air ball and Butler pulled away from
there, ending Kansas State's equally gritty quest - an effort that
will certainly gain the Wildcats more cachet in a state that has
long thought about the Jayhawks first.
Big man Curtis Kelly also had 14 points for Kansas State, which
shot 38 percent for the game didn't make a basket outside of 15
feet in the first half.
Credit for that, once again, goes to the Bulldogs, coached by
33-year-old Brad Stevens, who has refused to buy into the underdog
Being a mid-major, he insists, is mainly about money and
resources, not about 5-on-5 in a 40-minute game with nothing - or
everything - on the line.
Stevens found the players who fit his style - players who like
to work hard, don't back down from a challenge and don't care that
the big schools didn't come chasing after them. They're players who
loved Hinkle Fieldhouse, the home of the Bulldogs, but also a
tourist stopover because it's where the 1980s classic "Hoosiers,"
starring Hackman, was filmed.
Players who appreciate it certainly appreciate team basketball,
Stevens said, and now his team will play in a much bigger venue -
Lucas Oil Stadium next Saturday against Michigan State or
Tennessee. The stadium seats about 70,000 for basketball. Butler's
home games - all of them - drew a total of about 90,000 all season.
A great underdog story, most of America will call it.
Good bet, though, that the boys from Butler won't settle with
being happy to be there.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)