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Butler Dances into the Final Four

March 29, 2010

Butler Shocks the World

Butler, West Virginia, Michigan State and Duke. These four teams have survived the grueling season, conference tournaments and four rounds of intense playoff basketball. Four finalists and three games left until one of them is crowned the champion of the NCAA.

The Butler Bulldogs should have been home already getting ready for mid-terms. Instead they will be heading to Indianapolis to try and gain a spot in the NCAA championship game. The fifth seeded Bulldogs have been this years Cinderella and its only fitting that they get to play in front of their hometown crowd in Indiana.

Butler won its 24th consecutive game against Kansas on Saturday, and are the first true mid major conference school to make the final four since George Mason in 2006. Ironically a trip that also ended in Indianapolis.

Make no mistake however, Butler did not get this far because of good fortune and miracle plays. They pounded out Georgetown and Big East power house Syracuse, before handing number 2 ranked Kansas State a loss to ensure a final four appearance.

Trailing almost the entire game, No. 2 Kansas State (29-7) 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 K-State guard Jacob Pullen‘s shot at the buzzer dropped.

Pullen and teammate Denis Clemente didn’t score a point for Kansas State until 15 seconds were left in the first half, and it was no matter of luck. Rather, it was the tough, in-your-face defense ofRonald Nored and Willie 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 with 14, but they shot a combined 11 for 30.

“We just tried to guard them,” forward Gordon Hayward said. “That’s what we’ve done all year. I think we did a good job.”

Good job rebounding, too. Led by Hayward’s nine boards, Butler won that contest 41-29.

Hayward got fouled going to the hole 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. We were sluggish but I don’t think it was as much about our wrongdoing as it was Butler’s right-doing,” he said.

With the score tied at 54, Butler took the lead for good on the next possession when Hayward stretched his entire 6-foot-9 frame to not only collect a too-high, alley-oop pass from Nored, but collect himself and make the shot.

Pullen came back with an air ball and Butler pulled away from there, ending Kansas State’s equally gritty quest – an effort that will certainly gain the Wildcats more respect in a state that has long thought about the Jayhawks first.

Big man Curtis Kelly also had 14 points for Kansas State, which shot 38 percent for the game and didn’t make a basket outside of 15 feet in the first half.

Credit for that, once again, goes to the Bulldogs, coached by 33-year-old Brad Stevens, who has refused to buy into the underdog story, but certainly gives his group, with only one senior who logs big minutes, plenty of credit.

“This team’s grown up so much it’s unbelievable,” Stevens said.

Being a mid-major, he insists, is mainly about money and resources, not about 5-on-5 in a 40-minute game with nothing – or everything – on the line.

Clearly, Stevens knows what hes talking about.

Butler will host Michigan State at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday, a game that will only be miles away from their campus.

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