Butler Beats Michigan State to Advance to Championship
INDIANAPOLIS - This is not a surprise anymore. It is on the cusp of incredible.
This is no longer a charming story of a charming team traveling a charming road. It has left the main highway of what a Final Four is supposed to be, and veered into the inexplicable.
Butler scored one field goal in the last 12:18 Saturday against Michigan State.
Butler took 25 shots in the second half and missed 19 of them.
Two of Butler's three leading scorers this season were on the bench in the final minutes, Shelvin Mack with cramps and Matt Howard groggy after hitting his head.
Ronald Nored, the player who had to shoot the two biggest throws in school history - Butler ahead 50-49, six seconds left - came into Saturday night 3-for-12 from the line in the NCAA Tournament.
Consider all that, and logic points one way. The book of basketball points one way.
The fairy tale points another.
Butler is in the national championship game.
Say that sentence three weeks ago, and how many believers would have come along? They'd have all fit into a phone booth, assuming you could find one.
One was the coach. Brad Stevens told his players the first day of practice the goal was to get here. Not long after that, he could hear the doubting voice of a student manager on a practice tape:
"We're good, but we're not that good."
"Maybe they didn't all believe me," Stevens said Saturday night. "But enough of them did."
They all do now, after beating Michigan State 52-50 in defiance of the odds and Tom Izzo.
It wasn't pretty. It was never pretty.
The defenses didn't blink. They never blinked.
The shots weren't easy. They were never easy.
Imagine a pair of bulls, banging heads for two hours. Little offense, and no surrender.
But defense and belief can take a team a long way, further than the world can imagine. That is the lesson from what is happening to this small school with a big dream.
"That's what we do," Willie Veasley said.
"I think one thing about us," Nored said, "is there's never a sense of fear."
Butler shot 30.6 percent. You're supposed to get hammered when you shoot 30.6 percent.
"As long as we guard," Gordon Hayward said, "we feel like we can be in games."
Not to mention win 25 in a row.
The Bulldogs' next-to-last basket came with 12:18 left. The only one after that, nearly 11 minutes later, was a layup off a rebound.
"I never would have dreamed we would have won if we had shot 15 for 49," Stevens said.
How does a team get away with that? Why was Butler not blown into the offseason?
Defense. Few turnovers. Sheer will. Lots of free throws. And some luck.
"Definitely Butler basketball," Avery Jukes said.
Michigan State's last shot was an airball, by Draymond Green over Hayward, who might or might not have fouled him.
"I don't know if I got a piece of the ball," Hayward said, "or maybe a piece of his arm."
Whichever, there was no call. Teams of destiny get no call.
Where'd that leave Michigan State?
"Maybe I got smacked," Green said. "But on my behalf, I have to go stronger."
"It's a great story," Izzo said of Butler. "I'm proud of my team. And I'm a little bit ticked off. So I got all three emotions going my way."
Maybe his team just went against the wrong opponent in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the moment, this Butler hometown saga seems too much of an epic to slow down. Terrible shooting can't stop it. Injuries can't. Michigan State couldn't.
"They played smash-mouth basketball," Izzo said.
Several of the Bulldogs were in class Friday, just six miles up the road. In class, the day before the Final Four. A month ago, who would have made that up?
Now the Bulldogs are in the national championship game. Stevens, his unsung players, Blue II the bulldog.
"I feel like if I was not playing (them), I would be a Butler fan," Izzo said. "I like the way they play. I like their story. The whole thing."
No wonder. This is magic we're seeing. And a whole lot of defense.