SALT LAKE CITY — Butler University is a liberal-arts college of about 4,200 students hidden in a residential neighborhood north of downtown Indianapolis. Its basketball program has been called a mid-major, a Cinderella and even a team of destiny because of its charmed NCAA Tournament run. But on Saturday, Butler earned another title: Final Four team.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs defeated second-seeded Kansas State 63-56 in Saturday's West Region final to earn the first trip to the Final Four in program history. But calling it a "trip" might be a stretch: After the final buzzer sounded, Butler's fans, some with tears in their eyes, chanted, "Let's go home!"
Saturday night about 7 miles south of campus, the Bulldogs (32-4) will face the winner of today's Midwest Region final between No. 5 seed Michigan State and No. 6 Tennessee.
"It'd be just as cool if we moved it to Hinkle," coach Brad Stevens said of his team's fieldhouse. "I'd be all for that."
Butler's not complaining.
Gordon Hayward had 22 points and Shelvin Mack 16, and Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley keyed an intense defensive effort on Wildcats guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente to help Butler 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.
"This is probably the coolest thing that's ever happened in my life," Nored said.
Trailing almost the entire game, Kansas State (29-8) rallied to tie it at 54 with 3:09 left.
Butler scored the next nine to seal it before Pullen's shot at the buzzer dropped.
"It was a great experience, but it hurts that it had to end (Saturday)," Pullen said.
Pullen and Clemente didn't score until 15 seconds remained in the first half, and it wasn't luck. Nored and Veasley smothered 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 14, but they shot a combined 11-of-30.
"Defensively, they just try to hound everybody, try to stay in the lane, pack it in so there's nowhere to drive," Pullen said. "Then they just send five to the glass every time."
Led by Hayward's nine, Butler won the rebounding contest, 41-29.
As in their 63-59 victory over top-seeded Syracuse, the Bulldogs held the lead 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.
But Hayward got fouled going to the hole and made two free throws to take the lead back, and teammate Matt Howard hit one 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.