April 03, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- Outside Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday afternoon, a young Butler fan held up a poster that read We Are Not Cinderella.

Butler's enrollment (4,438), annual basketball expenditures ($1.7 million compared to an average of $9.6 million for the other Final Four teams) and young coach (33-year-old Brad Stevens would get carded at an R-rated movie) suggest the Bulldogs are exactly that, an uber-underdog at a severe disadvantage against an experienced opponent from a powerhouse conference. But on the court Saturday, there were no glass slippers. Only Nike hightops.

And Butler wore them better.

The hometown team with a campus 6.1 miles away from the Final Four venue clinched a spot in its first national championship game with a 52-50 win against Michigan State, which was playing in its second consecutive Final Four. Butler, which has won 25 consecutive games, will face the winner of Saturday's Duke-West Virginia game Monday night for the title.

"One thing about us," Butler guard Ronald Nored said, "is there's never a sense of fear."

Butler guard Gordon Hayward blocked Michigan State forward Draymond Green's baby hook attempt with eight seconds remaining, and Nored made two free throws to ensure the Spartans would need three points to force overtime. After making one free throw with two seconds remaining, guard Korey Lucious intentionally missed a second, but Hayward grabbed the rebound and time expired. "It's kind of fitting for us that we had to get a stop at the end to win," Hayward said. "It's fitting to win by playing the Butler way."

Hayward scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Bulldogs forward Willie Veasley scored just six points, but he had four of Butler's 12 steals. Guard Durrell Summers led Michigan State with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

With the town -- and any casual fan with no rooting interest in the other three teams -- galvanized behind the Bulldogs, Butler enjoyed a noisy homecourt advantage Saturday. Though Butler was the only Final Four participant to beat a No. 1 seed (Syracuse) and a No. 2 seed (Kansas State) en route to Indianapolis, Stevens and his players have had to explain all week that the Bulldogs are no ordinary mid-major team. They played in the past three NCAA Tournaments, making the Sweet 16 in 2007. Butler's star, 6-foot-9 guard Hayward, might be the single best player on a Final Four roster this year. Friday, Stevens said the Bulldogs wouldn't be intimidated by massive Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts of the NFL. "Bottom line is you're shooting on 10-foot goals," Stevens said Friday. "All the lines are the same and everything else."

It's interesting that Stevens would choose the basket-height argument. In the film Hooisers, Gene Hackman's Norman Dale character brings a tape measure to prove to his players from tiny Hickory High that the baskets for the state title game -- against a bigger, better-funded opponent, no less -- are the same height as the baskets in their home gym. And where did the climactic game take place in Hoosiers? Hinkle Fieldhouse, the home gym of the Butler Bulldogs.

Butler players insist the similarities end there. In fact, point guard Shelvin Mack claims he has never seen the movie.

Someday, Hollywood might make a movie about this Butler team. Such a film would have to include scenes of Hayward's 13 first-half points, most of which kept Butler in the game early after Lucious set the tone by making two early three-pointers to give the Spartans a 6-0 lead.

Butler settled, and its trademark suffocating defense began to wear down the Spartans, who had played without starting point guard Kalin Lucas since he tore his Achilles tendon during Michigan State's second-round win against Maryland. The teams went into halftime tied at 28.

Mack scored to give Butler a 34-33 lead with 17:39 remaining. The Bulldogs controlled the tempo, further depleting the Spartans when Hayward goaded Michigan State forward Raymar Morgan into committing his fourth foul with 12:38 remaining. The Spartans hung tough, though. Butler led by as many as five, but Michigan State shut down Butler's shooters, holding them to one field goal in the final 12:18. That basket was huge, though. It came after Butler guard Shawn Vanzant rebounded a Hayward miss. Before Vanzant fell over the baseline, he passed to Hayward for a layup that gave Butler a 50-46 lead with 1:36 remaining. "We've gone through stretches like that where we feel like we can't throw it in the ocean and we're standing on the beach," Hayward said. "As long as we guard, we feel like we're in the game."

The Bulldogs guarded when Green tried to muscle a shot over Hayward with eight seconds remaining and the Spartans trailing 50-49, but Green hinted later that Hayward guarded a bit too aggressively. "Maybe I got smacked," Green said. "But on my behalf, I have to go up stronger."

After the buzzer sounded, Lucious ripped a piece of athletic tape from his hand and tossed it in frustration. Butler fans danced and screamed as Butler's live bulldog mascot, Blue II, waddled onto the court to congratulate his team. Later, Blue II panted as the Butler band serenaded the moment with Kool and the Gang's "Celebration."

Meanwhile, Butler players group-hugged at midcourt, shook hands with the Spartans and shuffled off to the locker room. They seemed happy, but not overcome with joy. After all, they expected to be here.

"I'm kind of sick of hearing about us being a Cinderella team," Vanzant said. "I think we're a great ballclub."

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