Wiedmer: Butler does it all way to national tournament final

Wiedmer: Butler does it all way to national tournament final

April 4th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Blogsncaa

Butler's Shelvin Mack (1) drives to the basket between Michigan State's Raymar Morgan (2) and Garrick Sherman (41) during the first half of a men's NCAA Final Four semifinal college basketball game Saturday, April 3, 2010, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS -- And then Jimmy Chitwood, excuse me, Gordon Hayward pumped his fist once toward the roaring crowd and broke into a wide smile. "Hoosiers," oops, Butler lives for at least two more days.

"We've talked about playing the next game all year," Hayward said a few seconds after the Butler Bulldogs shocked college basketball for a fifth straight NCAA tournament game, outlasting Michigan State 52-50 in Saturday night's first semifinal.

"It's great to know that the next game is going to be the national championship game."

Let's slow that last statement down, restating 11 words too preposterous to be created in Hollywood. The ... next ... game ... is ... going ... to ... be ... the ... national ... championship... game. Monday night.

Butler? The team whose own student manager was overheard on an early practice tape saying, "They say we can get to the Final Four. I don't know that we're that good"?

Butler, whose campus is technically seven miles from Lucas Oil Stadium but symbolically light years away, given its Horizon League membership and sparse television coverage?

Butler, which doesn't have a single player recruited by anyone else in the Final Four, or last week's Elite Eight, for that matter?

Yet Hayward looked like anything but a fictional character when the Bulldogs' seven-point second half lead shrank to two with 1:36 to play, then slipped there again with two seconds left.

First, he scored on a layup thanks to a masterful rebound and pass from Shawn Vanzant that moved the Butler lead back to 50-46.

Then, when Michigan State stood on the line down two and needing to miss a free throw to have any chance at victory, it was Hayward who grabbed the rebound and held it tight as the buzzer sounded.

"I missed a blockout the time before," said the 6-foot-9 sophomore, who led the winners in both points (19) and rebounds (9). "I was supposed to clean up the glass on that last rebound. That was my job. We've talked all year about doing your job."

Often placed at the point, sophomore Ronald Nored's job often includes making free throws, which he's done miserably throughout this tournament, having missed 9 of 12 entering Saturday night.

But with 6.1 seconds to play, Nored stood calmly at the foul line, his team up 50-49, the perfect spot for a Bulldogs blowup.

"I'd been practicing free throws all week," he said. "I'd been so terrible the whole tournament. Just wanted to get my elbow under it, finish high, flick my wrist."

The first one fell cleanly through. The second one swished. The Bulldogs led by three points.

Then they did what smart teams like Butler do. As soon as the Spartans crossed midcourt, they fouled MSU point guard Korie Lucious, just as Tennessee had six days earlier in St. Louis. Lucious had missed that one to keep the Vols' hopes alive for the next few seconds.

This time he hit the first one before purposely missing the second, only to have Hayward do his job and clean up the glass, a task that reportedly led the hundreds of Butler's 4,512 students who couldn't get into the arena to erupt with joy six miles away.

"We heard they're going crazy on campus," one media type told 33-year-old Bulldogs boss Brad Stevens a few minutes after the game ended.

"Well, then, I'll probably tell the team to stay away from campus," Stevens said with a grin.

And so the greatest feel-good story of this tournament or any NCAA tournament in recent memory continues, pulled along by a bunch of hard-working Hoosiers who are too good to be Cinderfellas but not quite famous enough to be seen as potential national champs.

Or do you think hearing Nored say "the coolest part of the week was getting to shoot a music video" sounded like someone ready to head to the NBA?

Even one of their pregame rituals seems straight out of the movie "Hoosiers."

As they were being introduced in pregame warm-ups, a couple of the Bulldogs starters rubbed the head of their 6-year-old English bulldog mascot Blue.

"We pat ol' Blue on the head, and sometimes he barks and sometimes he bites," Nored said. "You have to play through it."

All the way to the next game. The national championship game.