Butler hits a home run in NCAA tournament
Hoosier hysteria is just getting started.
It kicked off with Butler center Matt Howard’s leap of faith into a mass of teammates that became a Bulldog-pile following a 63-56 victory over second-seeded Kansas State in the West Regional final Saturday.
“I’m never doing that again,” Howard said. “They caught me and threw me to the ground. I ended up on the bottom of all that.”
It continued with the fans chanting, “Let’s go home, let’s go home,” as Butler is headed back to Indianapolis, where it will be the first team to play a Final Four in its hometown since UCLA in 1972.
“I can’t imagine what is waiting for us back on campus,” guard Willie Veasley said. “We’re already getting text messages and photo messages. The place is nuts.”
And it was underscored by Bulldogs players and fans barking out, “Are you from Butler? Hell, yeah,” repeatedly, delaying the trophy ceremony at EnergySolutions Arena.
“I don’t see how I can get all the tickets I’m going to need,” said Howard, one of 10 Butler players from Indiana.
That’s a problem the fifth-seeded Bulldogs (32-4) created for themselves by not allowing the Wildcats (29-8) to inhale. When the need for a finishing kick arrived, Butler had it, scoring nine consecutive points to break a 54-54 tie and take home a 24-game winning streak and their first regional championship.
“This is probably the coolest thing that has ever happened in my life,” guard Ronald Nored said.
Said Veasley: “Most players have a wish, to play in the Final Four. I got that right now.”
The Bulldogs got it the old-fashioned way, with a philosophy that dates to the first peach basket nailed to an Indiana barn.
“Defense,” Howard said. “That’s what we work on from the first practice. We wait awhile before we even start to work on offense. It’s Indiana state tradition.”
Nored and Veasley were the forefront of that effort. They inherited Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, considered the best backcourt tandem in the tournament.
The two had combined for 53 points a double-overtime victory over Xavier. Then they combined for only three shots in the first 12 minutes against Butler. By halftime, Clemente had two points and Pullen was scoreless.
Nored hounded Pullen into a four-for-13 shooting performance.
If the Wildcats were fatigued after the double-overtime game, Howard didn’t blame them.
“I was pretty tired at the end too,” he said. “But if those two were tired, Ron and Willie had a lot to do with it.”
Nored finished with five steals. The effort went down to the final minute, as the Bulldogs knocked the ball into the backcourt during one Kansas State possession with less than a minute left.
Kansas State shot 39% from the field.
“Every time any of us turned around, someone was right there,” Kansas State forward Curtis Kelly said.
The defense allowed the Bulldogs to overcome 20 turnovers and to play without Howard for a long stretch after he picked up two fouls five minutes into the game. The Bulldogs got a big-lug-like performance from 6-foot-11 freshman Andrew Smith, who logged 12 lane-clogging minutes.
“I didn’t think we’d get killed when I went out,” Howard said. “There are a lot of pieces here and they all fit.”
Gordon Hayward handled the key offensive moments, scoring 15 of his 22 points in the second half. That included re-adjusting in midair to catch and shoot a lob pass to break a 54-54 tie.
By the time Kansas State scored again, the Bulldogs were on their way home … with a message
“We’re not here to go back to Indy and celebrate going to the Final Four,” Nored said. “We want to win the whole thing.”