Bulldogs earn it their way
INDIANAPOLIS -- The dream is the same in every driveway for every kid who's ever picked up a basketball -- game on the line, only a handful of seconds left and the chance to be a hero.
Except at Butler.
At Butler they dream differently.
"A lot of people want to shoot the last shot in the big game," Ronald Nored said. "We want to guard the last shot."
And so when Butler stared at an endgame featuring Tom Izzo, a game-coach wizard drawing up some magic on this clipboard, the Bulldogs didn't so much as flinch.
Instead, as Draymond Green leaned all of his 235-pound heft toward the basket, Gordon Hayward went up with him, forcing Green to short arm the shot (and perhaps getting a little assist by slapping Green on the wrist, Hayward admitted later).
Nored snatched the ball out of the air, hit two free throws and Butler -- yes, Butler -- earned a spot to play for the national championship, beating Michigan State 52-50.
"We expected them go into the post," Hayward said. "They'd been pushing it in there the whole game. It's fitting for us to get the stop at the end and to win the game that way. That's what we're about. Winning it with defense, that's the heart of who we are."
Some will call Butler's run to a national championship game improbable.
There is nothing improbable about any of this. The Bulldogs disposed of Michigan State in the same fashion they've dismissed their other 32 foes, with a smothering defensive effort they like to call the Butler Way, but would more adequately be described as the Butler Wall.
The Bulldogs have held all five of their NCAA tournament opponents to fewer than 60 points and the 52 points scored by the Spartans is the lowest by an Izzo-coached team in 47 NCAA tourney games.
It is that impenetrable force field that has carried the Bulldogs to the national championship game. With an enrollment of just 4,500, Butler is believed to be the smallest school to play for the hoops crown since Jacksonville in 1970.
That, too, is fitting since the game was played like a throwback.
Butler shot 31 percent for the game and spent 12 minutes of the second half without knocking down a field goal.
The game was about as exciting offensively as a Big Ten football game and maybe even tougher. Hayward sported a puffy and bloodied lower lip postgame and a woozy Matt Howard never even came out of the training room.
But as bad as the Bulldogs might have looked, it was the Spartans who in the end were worse for the wear.
I don't pride myself on being the best shooter on this team; I pride myself on making all the hustle plays.” -- Butler's Shawn Vanzant
"You think our war drill is something now; next year it's going to be fist fighting because I'm going to make sure our guys are never, ever, ever, ever physically beaten out of a game again," Izzo said. "And I thought tonight we were."
Perhaps there is no greater testimony to Butler's defensive tenacity than that. Rare is the Izzo-coached team that is out-toughed. Yet the Bulldogs beat the Spartans at their own game, winning not just the game, but even more stunning, the offensive rebounding war.
Butler pulled down 11 offensive boards to the Spartans' eight, and none more critical than the one Shawn Vanzant nabbed with 1:42 left.
With Butler suffering through its scoring drought and clinging to a 48-46 lead, Vanzant -- all 6 feet of him -- came flying from the top of the key to nab a rebound of a missed Hayward shot.
He not only got the rebound; he somehow managed to flip it back to Hayward while tumbling out of bounds. Hayward scored the easy chippy.
"I have no idea where he came from," Hayward said.
"I don't pride myself on being the best shooter on this team; I pride myself on making all the hustle plays," Vanzant said. "I didn't realize how big it was when I did it but then afterward, it was overwhelming. To make a play like that in a game like this, man."
Vanzant's heroics served as the handoff for Hayward and Nored.
It is no surprise that Hayward was in the endgame. He is not only the best player in this Final Four, he is the living, breathing personification of Butler.
He doesn't look like a future NBA player (even though he is). He looks more like a math whiz (which he also is). He sports a baby face second only to that of his head coach, yet plays with the ferocity of a beast.
He went up hard with Green -- "I might have hit him on the hand a little bit, so we might have gotten lucky on that," he said -- and came down with the respect of his foe.
"Maybe I did get smacked," Green said. "But on my behalf, I have to go stronger. I have to go up to finish the shot and get fouled. I mean the refs didn't make the call but if we were on the opposite end defending them and they called the foul, we would be upset as well."
Slightly more surprising than Hayward's heroics was Nored's nailing the critical free throws with the steely coolness of a sniper.
Coming into the Final Four he was a brutal 3-of-12 at the line, but after spying a picture of himself from an early NCAA game, worked on his mechanics all week.
With 70,000 people watching and nothing less than a chance to represent mid-majors everywhere on the line, he made sure to get his elbow underneath him, flicked his wrist and hit nothing but net.
"Yeah, yeah, I knew they were in," Nored said. "Shelvin [Mack] came up to me and said, 'I have confidence in you, so knock 'em down and let's go to the national championship game.' So I did."
Nothing to it, just like you imagine it on the driveway.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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