SALT LAKE CITY - Every day they walk into practice, they also walk onto a movie set - the one where they filmed the story about the little team that gets its big chance and lives out the unthinkable dream.
That’s the story of “Hoosiers.”
That’s also the story of Butler – the team that’s reminding everyone that big schools with big money don’t have a monopoly on everything in big-time sports.
Yes, the boys from Butler did it – getting 22 points from Gordon Hayward to defeat Kansas State, 63-56, in the West Regional final Saturday and advance to the Final Four.
Next, the Bulldogs take their 24-game winning streak to downtown Indianapolis. Though only 5 miles from the Butler campus, it’s hard to think of many programs that have taken a longer, more unlikely road to get this close to a championship.
“It’d be just as cool if we moved it to Hinkle,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said of his team’s fieldhouse. “I’d be all for that.”
No such luck. Still, the fifth-seeded Bulldogs (32-4) are writing their own underdog story, even if they can’t really be called underdogs anymore.
Shelvin Mack scored 16 points, and Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley keyed an in-your-face defensive effort on K-State guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente to help Butler 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 Indianapolis.
“This is probably the coolest thing that’s ever happened in my life,” Nored said.
Trailing almost the entire game, No. 2 Kansas State (29-8) rallied to go ahead briefly at 52-51 with 4:51 to play on a 3-pointer from Clemente.
But Butler didn’t fold, it only got better. The Bulldogs scored the next nine points to seal the game before Pullen’s shot at the buzzer dropped but offered no consolation.
“It was a great experience, but it hurts that it had to end today,” Pullen said.
Enrollment at Butler is in the 4,500 range, and the Bulldogs are reminding everyone why college basketball captures America’s heart this time every year.
The Bulldogs are weaving a story about the overlooked and under-appreciated getting their time in the limelight – the kind of tale every underdog has to love.
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 Clemente didn’t score a point for Kansas State until 15 seconds remained in the first half, and it was no matter of luck. Rather, it was the tough, in-your-face defense of Nored and 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 14, but their points came on combined 11-for-30 shooting.
“Defensively, they just try to hound everybody, try to stay in the lane, pack it in so there’s nowhere to drive,” Pullen said. “Then they just send five to the glass every time. Did a good job rebounding.”
Led by Hayward’s nine boards, Butler won that contest, too, 41-29.
Lucky, plucky teams simply don’t win the way Butler did. Much as they did in a 63-59 win over Syracuse, the Bulldogs held the lead for most of the game, but fell behind briefly toward the end.
Clemente’s 3-pointer with 4:51 remaining capped an 8-0 run and give K-State its only lead of the game. Teams like Butler are supposed to fold then, right?
Well, not quite.
Hayward got fouled going to the basket 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.
Coach Frank Martin wouldn’t make excuses, but clearly that Xavier game took a lot out of the Wildcats – and it showed at the end.
“We looked tired,” he said. “We were sluggish but I don’t think it was as much about our wrongdoing as it was Butler’s right-doing.”