HOUSTON — San Diego State’s vaunted defense staggered well into the second half as free-flowing Florida Atlantic breezed to a 14-point lead.
The Aztecs found their teeth again to get back into the game. Then Lamont Butler delivered at the very end.
Butler hit a buzzer-beating jumper for the ages, sending San Diego State to its first national championship game with a 72-71 win over fellow mid-major Florida Atlantic in the Final Four on Saturday night.
“I didn’t really know how big it was,” Butler said after his calm reaction to one of the greatest shots in NCAA Tournament history. “We’re going to the national championship. That’s not things many people do.”
A diabolical defense had pushed San Diego State (32-6) all the way to the final stop for the NCAA tourney. The Aztecs bumped and harassed opponents all season to create the first all-mid-major national semifinal since VCU and Butler in 2011.
The swaggy Owls (35-4) seemed to have solved San Diego State’s vaunted defense, using constant movement and ball reversals to create mismatches they could exploit.
San Diego State found its defensive mojo midway through the second half, clamping down on the Owls while whittling their lead down to one on Jaedown LeDee’s short jumper with 36 seconds left.
When FAU’s Johnell Davis missed a contested layup, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher opted to not call timeout, joking that he didn’t have any plays left.
All he had to do was get the ball to Butler.
The clock ticking down, Butler dribbled to the baseline, found that cut off and circled back. He stepped back to create a little room and hit a jumper that sent the Aztecs racing out onto the floor and had San Diego Padres fans going wild at Petco Park.
Butler’s winning buzzer-beater was the first for the Final Four since Jalen Suggs for Gonzaga against UCLA in 2021 and No. 5 overall. But it is the only one of the five when the winning team was trailing at the time of the shot.
Next up for the Mountain West’s first Final Four team is a chance to win the conference’s first national title Monday night against UConn or Miami.
“We’ve always been knocked down,” said San Diego State’s Matt Bradley, who had 21 points after struggling in the previous three games. “But the biggest thing we always do is get back up and keep fighting.”
San Diego State had been building toward this since coach Brian Dutcher took over for his longtime mentor Steve Fisher. Dutcher followed the mold Fisher had created, adding an extra dose of nasty to the defense.
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The Aztecs lost an opportunity when they were in position for a No. 1 seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, only to have it wiped out by the pandemic.
San Diego State followed a pair of NCAA Tournament first-round flameouts with a solid 2023 season, winning 27 games to earn a No. 5 seed in the East Region in this year’s bracket.
Once the NCAA Tournament started, the Aztecs ramped up their defense even more, holding their first four opponents to an average of 57 points per game and 17% shooting from the 3-point arc.
FAU found an answer through quick ball movement, with the occasional dump into the post to keep the Aztecs honest.
The result: The Owls led 40-33 at halftime after hitting 5 of 11 from 3-point range against a defense that held its previous two NCAA Tournament opponents to 5-of-44 shooting from the arc.
FAU kept making shots, stretching the lead to 14 midway through the second half.
Then the Aztecs got gritty.
Contesting nearly every shot and pass while pulling down a string of offensive rebounds, including six in 59 seconds, San Diego State rallied to tie it at 65-all.
“They went on a run, getting extra possessions,” said FAU’s Nick Boyd, who hit three early 3s and finished with 12 points. “That was really the turning point of the game.”
FAU kept San Diego State at bay most of the second half thanks to Alijah Martin, who seemed to have an answer for every Aztecs move by scoring 19 of his 26 points in the second half.
He hit a reverse layup with 45 seconds left to put FAU up 71-68, but wasn’t enough to prevent the Owls’ improbable run from coming to an end.
“These guys have created memories and a legacy that will last a lifetime,” FAU coach Dusty May.
So did the Aztecs — with one more chance to add to it.
By JOHN MARSHALL AP Basketball Writer