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Butler heading home feeling confident
SALT LAKE CITY
Butler forward Matt Howard doesn’t have to dream much longer.
Neither do his teammates.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs are headed back to Indianapolis, and it’s not because their season is over.
Rather, with its stunning, 63-56 victory over Kansas State in the NCAA West Regional final Saturday, the small liberal arts college has finally earned its right to play on college basketball’s biggest stage next week.
“We’re coming home!” Butler coach Brad Stevens yelled to the crowd with a big smile after claiming a spot in this year’s Final Four.
And they’re not done yet.
“We’re not here to just go back to Indy and go to the Final Four and celebrate that way,” said sophomore guard Ronald Nored, whose pestering defense held the Wildcats’ leading scorer, Jacob Pullen, to 14 points on 4-for-13 shooting.
“We want to win the whole thing.”
They certainly could.
After the way Butler dismantled No. 1 seed Syracuse and No. 2 K-State in a matter of three days, Stevens’ team has proven it can compete with anyone in this year’s NCAA tournament.
“We believed in ourselves,” senior William Vesley said. “But this is just another check on our list of things that we can accomplish.”
Still, the idea of playing in the Final Four just six miles away from Hinkle Fieldhouse — the home of the 1986 movie "Hoosiers" starring Gene Hackman — is difficult to grasp even for Stevens’ players, particularly the team's 10 from the state of Indiana.
“It’s hard to believe,” Howard, a native of Connersville, Ind., acknowledged as a herd of reporters surrounded him in the locker room minutes after the win.
“We knew we had the personnel and the system to do it, but still, when it hits, it’s hard to really think that it’s here now.”
With a defensive effort that held Kansas State to just 38.6 percent from the field and limited Kansas State’s imposing frontcourt to just 20 points, Butler's dream is now a reality.
“They believe in one another,” Stevens said.
It’s a feeling that not even other well-respected non-BCS powers like Gonzaga and Xavier can say they’ve ever experienced.
It’s a feeling no other Horizon League school can say it has felt, either.
“It’s just very special,” said sophomore forward Gordon Hayward, who led Butler with a game-high 22 points and nine rebounds.
The Bulldogs, in fact, are just the fourth team from a non-BCS conference to advance to the Final Four since 1996 and only the sixth No. 5 seed to reach the season’s final weekend since 1979.
But this is not your typical Cinderella story like the one George Mason delivered in 2006 or the one Davidson almost produced two years ago.
Sure, Butler has never reached this point, but it’s also a program that has made its name most recently with four straight NCAA tournament appearances — including a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2007 before the 33-year-old Stevens took over as head coach the following season.
“Our guys have been in almost every situation you can think of this year,” Howard said. “There’s a calm confidence in our coach, and that just pours over to the rest of us.”
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It was a confidence that Stevens showed in leaving Howard on the court after the junior picked up his third personal foul less than a minute into the second half.
“It’s all five of us,” Hayward insisted. “It’s not just one of us.”
It was a confidence that Stevens showed in his players when Kansas State took its first lead of the game with 4:50 remaining on Denis Clemente’s 3-pointer.
“He trusts us,” Nored said of his coach. “We have teammates that are going to pick us up.”
That’s what Curtis Kelly tried to do for his Kansas State teammates in the first half, making six of his 10 shots and scoring 12 points before halftime.
But after 50 minutes of chaos against Xavier in the Sweet 16 Thursday night, you could see in the faces of K-State’s players that they were tired.
Not physically, but mentally.
“I think mentally we looked tired,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “We were sluggish. But I don’t think it was about our wrongdoing as much as it was about Butler’s right-doing.”
The Bulldogs, who extended their winning streak to 24 games, might not have made it look pretty against the Wildcats, committing 20 turnovers and struggling from the free-throw line in the second half, yet their will to win never let them down.
“The power of ‘we,’” Stevens said. “These guys are barely 20 making those plays on this stage.
“That’s pretty neat.”
Now, the biggest problem for Stevens’ players could be getting enough tickets for their friends and family to watch next week’s Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“That’s not a bad problem to have,” Howard said.
It certainly isn’t.
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