Butler did it, beats Kansas State, 63-56, to make Final Four
AP National Writer
SALT LAKE CITY — It's an easy five-mile drive from the Butler campus to the site of its next game, in downtown Indianapolis. Still, it's hard to think of many programs that have taken a longer, more unlikely road to the Final Four.
Yes, the boys from Butler did it — defeating Kansas State 63-56 in the West Regional final Saturday to make their trip back home something much bigger than that.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs, the team that plays in the fieldhouse where "Hoosiers" was filmed, are writing their own underdog story, even if they can't really be called underdogs anymore.
Gordon Hayward scored 22 points and Shelvin Mack had 16 to help Butler (32-4) win its 24th straight game and become the first school from a true, mid-major conference to make the Final Four since George Mason in 2006 — a trip that also ended in Indianapolis.
Trailing almost the entire game, No. 2 Kansas State (29-7) rallied to tie it at 54 with 3:09 remaining. But Butler didn't fold, it only got better. The Bulldogs scored the next nine points to seal the game before K-State guard Jacob Pullen's shot at the buzzer dropped — but offered no consolation.
Enrollment at Butler is in the 4,500 range, about 15 of whom have reminded everyone why college basketball captures America's heart this time every year.
They are weaving a story about the overlooked and under-appreciated getting their time in the limelight, the kind of tale every underdog, from Charlie Brown to Gene Hackman, has to love.
But make no mistake — this is not some scrappy, overmatched team that needed a break, no Danny and the Miracles, or Villanova shooting 79 percent to knock off mighty Georgetown.
This is a team that stood toe-to-toe with Syracuse on one night, then Kansas State the next, shutting down two power teams from power conferences with legitimate stars of their own.
Pullen and teammate Denis Clemente didn't score a point for Kansas State until 15 seconds were left in the first half, and it was no matter of luck. Rather, it was the tough, in-your-face defense of Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley that did it — smothering a pair of players who had combined for 53 points two nights earlier in a double-overtime win against Xavier.
Clemente finished with 18 and Pullen with 14, but they shot a combined 11 for 30.
Lucky teams also don't win the way Butler did. Much like in its 63-59 victory over Syracuse, the Bulldogs held the lead in this one for most of the night, but fell behind briefly toward the end.
Clemente made a 3-pointer with 4:49 left to cap an 8-0 run and give K-State its only lead of the game, 52-51. Teams like Butler are supposed to fold then, right?
Well, not quite.
Hayward got fouled going to the hole and made two free throws to take the lead back, and teammate Matt Howard made one more free throw to make it 54-52. Clemente dribbled for what seemed like forever for a layup to tie, and that was the last significant basket the Wildcats would make.
Butler took the lead on the next possession when Hayward — that rare NBA prospect playing at a mid-major — stretched his entire 6-foot-9 frame to not only collect a too-high, alley-oop pass from Nored, but collect himself and make the shot.
Pullen came back with an air ball and Butler pulled away from there, ending Kansas State's equally gritty quest — an effort that will certainly gain the Wildcats more cachet in a state that has long thought about the Jayhawks first.