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WVU wise to 'bank' hopes on Butler

NEW YORK -- All of Madison Square Garden knew who would get the ball when West Virginia inbounded the ball with 3.7 seconds left and its Big East quarterfinal game against Cincinnati tied at 51. Da'Sean Butler knew who would be guarding him once he got said ball because his defender, Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson, told him as much right before the start of the play.

But even as Stephenson's aggressive defense caused him to temporarily lose his balance, even though he had no choice but to throw up a 20-footer with a hand in his face as time expired, Butler knew his game-winner was going in -- as soon as it hit the backboard.

"When I saw it hit the glass, I said, 'Oh, it's fine,' " said a smiling Butler after sending his team to the semifinals with a jaw-dropping buzzer-beater. "It fell right in there, and it worked out for me and the team."

Butler not only saved the day for West Virginia -- he saved the Big East from a severely depleted set of semifinal games for Friday.

On a nearly historic day at Madison Square Garden, the Nos. 1 (Syracuse), 2 (Pittsburgh) and 4 (Villanova) seeds had already gone down by the time the Bearcats and Mountaineers took the floor shortly after 9 p.m. ET. Never in tourney history had all four top seeds failed to reach the semifinals. This one would have been the biggest upset yet, as 11th-seeded Cincinnati (18-15) needed two wins just to reach Thursday night's quarterfinal against the No 7 team in the country, West Virginia (25-6).

"We didn't want to be that last team to lay down and not take care of business," Butler said.

West Virginia very nearly did just that, blowing both an 18-4 first-half lead and a nine-point lead in the final 5:42 with an ugly 35-percent shooting night. With 42 seconds left, Stephenson, the Big East's Rookie of the Year, drained a 3-pointer to tie the game, after which the Bearcats' defense forced the Mountaineers into a shot-clock violation.

With 6.4 seconds left and Cincinnati inbounding under its own basket, the scent of Cinderella began to rise to the Garden rafters.

But an upset apparently wasn't in the cards -- what with the bizarre play that ensued next. Following two timeouts, Bearcats coach Mick Cronin opted to insert backup guard Dion Dixon, who caught the inbounds pass near the left sideline and somehow, inexplicably, lost it out of bounds. Butler, who was guarding him, said he tapped the ball out of Dixon's hands and back at his body.

"He was out of control before he even put it on the floor," Cronin said of Dixon. "He's devastated right now."

That opened the door for Butler, less than a week removed from another game-winner (he's had several) last Saturday at Villanova, for his latest heroics. Never mind the Mountaineers had hit just 3-of-19 from beyond the arc prior to that moment -- Butler knew it was going in.

"He called it," said Stephenson, a New York City native. "He said 'bank.' I said 'What?' I turned 'round and I saw it go in. Oh, man."

With the win, 3rd-seeded West Virginia will take on streaking Notre Dame (No. 7 seed) on Friday. It also becomes the de facto favorite the rest of the way here -- though that hasn't exactly been a desirable status so far.

But Butler likes it that way. He knows what's at stake. A championship this weekend could land the Mountaineers a No. 1 seed in next week's NCAA Tournament.

"We kind of punched our ticket for [a two seed] after we beat Villanova," he said. "If we win the Big East [tournament], we've given ourselves the opportunity for a 1 seed. I like our odds."

Can you blame him? He seems to have a thing for prophecies.

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