INDIANAPOLIS – Less than 7 miles away, Butler plays most of its games rather anonymously in a gym that seats about 10,000 people.
On Saturday night, the Bulldogs seemed light years away from obscurity. In front of a packed Lucas Oil Stadium, Butler climbed onto the biggest stage of all with its 52-50 victory against Michigan State in the Final Four and advance to the championship game for the first time in school history.
After Michigan State’s Korie Lucious missed a second free throw with 2 seconds on the clock, Butler forward Gordon Hayward grabbed the rebound and pointed toward the rafters as Butler history was made and the school’s mascot Bulldog was trotted onto the court.
“If we focus and do our job, why can’t we play for a national championship?” coach Brad Stevens said he thought at the start of the season.
The Bulldogs will play top-seeded Duke on Monday for the national championship.
This is all new territory for Butler, but judging from the performance, they look like this is familiar ground despite their wide-eyed players and fresh-faced coach.
Stevens, 33, will be the second-youngest coach in a national championship game.
“This is where we should be,” Hayward said he thought before the game.
Hayward led the Bulldogs with 19 points, but this night wasn’t about flashy dunks or scoring sprees – or even jump shots and layups.
It was all about defense, something that is a sacred hallmark for both teams but one at which Butler appeared better.
It’s a good thing for the Bulldogs because their offense was invisible, shooting just 6 of 25 in the second half and 15 of 49 overall. They missed 11 of their last 12 shots, going scoreless for more than a 10-minute stretch.
It didn’t matter in the end as Butler ended Michigan State’s chance to return to the national championship and try to exorcise the demons of losing in a blowout last season to North Carolina.
It made perfect sense that Butler used defensive stops down the stretch to pull out the win.
“As long as we guard, we feel like we can be in games,” Hayward said.
One of the key defensive moves was when Hayward guarded Draymond Green in the lane to force a miss with 8 seconds remaining to hang on to a 50-49 lead. Michigan State thought Green was fouled, but Green said after the game, “I just have to go up stronger.”
Ronald Nored made two free throws – despite some rocky shooting at the line through the tournament – with 6.1 seconds to go for a 52-49 lead.
Lucious made the first but purposely missed the second free throw, which Hayward rebounded to end the Spartans’ last chance.
The Bulldogs used their strengths to overcome their evident offensive weaknesses, shooting just 30.6 percent to Michigan State’s 42.9 percent.
They caused 16 turnovers and committed only eight and benefited from Michigan State’s foul trouble. The Bulldogs were in the double bonus with 9 minutes remaining and the Spartans were forced to play much of the game without Raymar Morgan.
“It was very frustrating,” Green said. “But we have to defend better.”
Butler also didn’t have it easy.
Guard Shelvin Mack had cramps in both legs and Matt Howard headed to the locker room for a stint after hitting his head before returning to the game.
The Spartans looked stunned heading off the court as Butler fans chanted “To Be Known.”
It’s hard to imagine Butler maintaining anonymity after this.