NCAA Tournament Final 4 Recap - Michigan State vs Butler
Butler 52, Michigan State 50
Don't call the Butler Bulldogs a Cinderella. Don't call them Hoosiers. Don't call them the new George Mason.
Call them the best defensive team in the country, and call them a participant in the last and most meaningful college basketball game of the season.
Yes, coach Brad Stevens's team - whose campus is located just six miles from the site of the 2010 Final Four - is one of the most improbable national championship game contestants in recent memory, but after another normal day at the office, it's hard to deny the way this team goes about its business. Butler defeated Michigan State - and legendary coach Tom Izzo - by doing the things it always does.
Only four men have made more Final Fours than Izzo has at Michigan State. By reaching the last weekend of the college basketball season on six different occasions with Sparty over the past 12 years, Izzo has rocketed to the top echelon of the sport's bench bosses. Izzo's ability to coax winning performances out of his teams - even with injuries and struggles and inconsistencies - is proven beyond all doubt and discussion, so when Butler took the court at Lucas Oil Stadium against MSU, there were some lingering questions about the Bulldogs' ability to persevere for 40 additional minutes.
Those questions were answered with typical Butler boldness.
Forget the fact that Butler shot only 31 percent from the field.
Forget the fact that Butler gave up 21 points in the game's first 10 minutes and 11 seconds to a hot-shooting Spartan side.
Forget the fact that Butler - tied at halftime - hit only 24 percent of its field goal attempts in the second half.
Forget the fact that the Bulldogs failed to hit a shot for over 10 minutes in that very same second stanza.
Forget the fact that key guard Shelvin Mack - who, with teammate Gordon Hayward, was the only other Bulldog who reliably put the ball in the bucket during the first half - spent most of the second half on the bench with debilitating muscle spasms.
Forget the fact that snake-bitten center Matt Howard once again fell into early foul trouble on cheap nickel-dime calls and then blew a host of layups in late-game sequences when Butler had a chance to put the flustered Spartans away.
Forget the fact that Butler coach Brad Stevens, at age 33, was contesting a national semifinal against Tom Izzo.
Forget the fact that Izzo, the master of the late-game set play in a one-basket-wins-everything situation, had his big chance to steal a victory and advance to Monday night's final with one last-second score.
The Horizon League champions and owners of a 24-game winning streak dug into their basketball DNA and did what comes so naturally for them: They defended and rebounded to the very end, enough to overcome their profound offensive limitations and live for yet another two days.
Yes, Butler's combination of defense and rebounding continued to reign supreme in the college basketball realm, even against a Michigan State squad that prides itself on crashing the offensive glass and winning physical battles underneath the basket. Butler doesn't own a great deal of size, but since the school's mascot is a bulldog - and a real live one graced the CBS set at Lucas Oil Stadium a few hours before tip-off - it's hard not to invoke the famous saying, "it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."
These Dogs are not artful or accurate shooters, but they fought harder, better and longer than Michigan State did.
After conceding 21 points in the first 10:11 of play, Butler allowed just 22 points to the Spartans in the next 26 minutes and 42 seconds, carving out a 47-43 lead with 3:07 left. The Bulldogs missed a lot of close-in shots as the stretch run arrived, but their hustle and determination were still good enough to carry the day.
With Butler leading 48-46, unheralded reserve guard Shawn Vanzant flew out of nowhere to rebound a missed 3-pointer by Hayward on the right low block. Vanzant, whose momentum was carrying his body out of bounds toward the baseline, spun in mid-air and threw a perfect pass to a cutting Hayward, who approached the rim and kissed the ball off the backboard to give Butler a 50-46 edge with 1:36 remaining in regulation. The basket was Butler's first since the 12:18 mark of the second half, and it was also the biggest score either team would register in an expectedly close bare-knuckle brawl of a game.
Michigan State was typically undaunted by that score. The Spartans reduced the lead to 50-49 on three free throws, and when Butler's Ronald Nored saw a driving layup somehow kick out of the basket with 32 seconds left, Michigan State had a chance to win the ballgame in the closing seconds. The Spartans had gotten to the point where they could walk off the court in triumph with one... more... basket. It's all they ever could have asked for on an evening when they surrendered 20 points off their 16 turnovers, registered zero fast-break points, and went just 10 of 18 at the foul line.
Hayward - who is exceptionally long and athletic - used every bit of his 6-foot-9 frame to defend Michigan State's beefy bodies in the paint throughout the game. Hayward spends much of his time on the perimeter at the offensive end of the floor, but in this contest, he was asked to stand up to the Spartans' big men six feet from the basket. On the most fateful possession of this pulse-pounder in Indianapolis, Hayward stood his ground one last time. He might have gotten a piece of MSU forward Draymond Green as the Spartan forward elevated for an eight-footer with eight seconds left, but Hayward - who had contained both Green and teammate Raymar Morgan throughout this contest - reaped the benefits of his consistency. A blocked shot fell well short of the rim, with Nored scooping up the loot and nailing two foul shots for a 52-49 lead with six seconds to go. When Butler executed a perfect "late foul" on MSU's final possession, all that was needed was a rebound of an intentionally missed foul shot with two seconds on the clock. Hayward naturally snapped up the board against a desperate attempt by Spartan guard Durrell Summers, and Butler's mid-major move to Monday's national title tilt was complete.
Not many Americans had Butler in their brackets when the NCAA Tournament began. In a larger context, the champion of the lil' ol' Horizon League has certainly stunned the nation. Yet, Butler is winning games by merely imposing its defense-first identity on opponents who simply have to convert foul shots and hit a few jumpers whenever they get the chance. Michigan State didn't do enough of those things, and as a result, Izzo lost his very first NCAA Tournament game decided by five points or fewer, a truly remarkable stat.
What's also truly remarkable is that the Butler Bulldogs will play for the NCAA Division I national championship of men's basketball on Monday night.