Originally published March 27, 2010 at 06:11p.m., updated March 28, 2010 at 12:00a.m.
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 Indy. Though only five 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, 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 tie it at 54 with 3:09 remaining.
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, about 15 of whom have reminded everyone why college basketball captures America’s heart this time every year.
They are weaving a story about the overlooked and under-appreciated getting their time in the limelight — the kind of tale every underdog, from Charlie Brown to Gene Hackman, 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 they shot a combined 11-for-30.
“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 like in its 63-59 victory over Syracuse, the Bulldogs held the lead in this one for most of the night, but fell behind briefly toward the end.
Clemente made a three-pointer with 4:49 left to cap an 8-0 run and give K-State its only lead of the game, 52-51. Teams like Butler are supposed to fold then, right?
Well, not quite.
Hayward got fouled going to the hole and made two free throws to take the lead back, and 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 KSU made.
Coach Frank Martin wouldn’t make excuses, but clearly that Xavier game took a lot out of the Wildcats.
“We looked tired. We were sluggish but I don’t think it was as much about our wrongdoing as it was Butler’s right-doing,” he said.