Butler enjoys another special night

Their best player has a haircut that brings to mind rolling tumbleweed. Their head coach looks like he might have trouble getting into R-rated movies. They are not especially long or strong, and won’t run you out of the gym. They are Plain Jane all the way.

This is Butler. The mighty, resilient, exasperating, never-say-quit Butler Bulldogs.

On a day their marquee guy, forward Matt Howard, had a so-so outing, and their coach, Brad Stevens, admitted to being “outcoached,” the No. 8 seed Bulldogs still pulled out a gripping 74-71 overtime victory over the second-seeded Florida Gators yesterday in the Southeast Regional final to advance to their second straight Final Four.

“We’re going back baby!” screamed guard Ronald Nored moments after the final buzzer sounded.

In a city of gumbo and cherry-flavored hurricanes, these Bulldogs competed with cold-weather hardiness, and with the understanding that nothing is out of their reach provided they reach for every loose ball. Including pure joy. Including mowing down three higher-ranked seeds in succession.

“It was a physical game,” said Shelvin Mack, who scored a game-high 27 points, including five in overtime. “That’s what the NCAA tournament is all about.”

Even Stevens got caught up in the hysteria, chest-bumping center Emerson Kampen after the game and nearly falling onto the hardwood with a joyous thud.

“I thought the elevation was good, but I’ve got to work on my landing, that’s for sure,” Stevens joked. “I need to get out some old gymnastic tapes and study them a little bit better.”

The film study Stevens and his staff put in for Florida with a one-day turnaround was exceptional — as they adapted on the fly. The Gators had a considerable size advantage in the frontcourt, and with Howard being bullied for most of the game, the Bulldogs turned to their guards and bench players to rally them back.

Florida center Vernon Macklin scored 15 points in 14 minutes of action in the first half. Still, Butler trailed by just one at halftime, 33-32.

“We were talking about it on the bench,” Howard said. “We’re gonna find a way to win.”

The game was a sleepy one to that point, which seemed appropriate, given the venue. On Friday evening, good vibes and better music wafted through New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, a potential indicator as to why the Bulldogs fan section behind the team’s bench was in a relative state of catatonia until midway through the second half.

At that point, Gators forward Alex Tyus slipped free for a pair of dunks, then added two free throws and a floater during a 12-1 run that handed the Gators a 51-40 lead with 9:25 remaining.

Stevens called on reserve guard Chrishawn Hopkins to take the court.

“He looked at me, and I felt my heart beating out of my chest,” Hopkins said. “I knew my time has come.”

It had, as Hopkins assisted on a Howard basket inside, and then drained a 3-pointer to whittle the Gators’ lead to 53-49, bringing the crowd to its feet. The Bulldogs then tied it, 57-57, with 3:03 remaining on two straight layups by Mack.

“If you are in his shoes you may not be expecting to play,” Howard said of Hopkins. “But he was focused and ready to go.”

With the score 60-60 in the final minute of regulation, the Gators pressed on. Point guard Erving Walker dribbled near midcourt with :20 left, and the crowd began to rise once more. Nored clapped his hands near the top of the key, psyching himself up but also presenting Walker with a direct challenge: Come on. Walker took the bait and then missed an off-balance jumper from beyond the 3-point arc, catapulting the game to overtime.

“We pride ourselves in our defense,” Nored said.

Florida was 4-1 in overtime games this season, but this time Butler prevailed. Mack’s 3-pointer with 1:21 left in OT handed the Bulldogs a 72-70 lead that they would not relinquish.

“We just kind of stayed together, stayed the course, figured it out, and just played resiliently,” Stevens said. “I’m incredibly proud of these guys.”