Bulldogs when it matters most

SALT LAKE CITY – Please, stop the “Hoosiers” references.

Sure, Butler plays its games at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the site of the climactic scene of the famous 1986 Gene Hackman film about a small-town Indiana high school that wins the state championship. And, yes, the fifth-seeded Bulldogs pulled one of the NCAA tournament’s biggest upsets Thursday by defeating No. 1 seed Syracuse 63-59 in a West Regional semifinal at the EnergySolutions Arena.

But this team is no Cinderella.

Butler's Willie Veasley celebrates after hitting a three-point shot against Syracuse.
(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Butler (31-4) beat Syracuse (30-5) by relying on the same gumption that helped the Bulldogs win each of the 22 games that preceded this one. You don’t put together the nation’s longest winning streak without having plenty of talent to go along with that good old-fashioned Midwestern moxie.

“It just kind of shows that when the ball goes up, it doesn’t matter with the labels or seeds,” said Butler forward Gordon Hayward, who collected a team-high 17 points. “We’re out there just playing basketball against another team. We don’t look at it as they’re a high major or Syracuse. We just look at them as an opponent.”

Still not convinced? Consider this.

Syracuse entered the game leading the nation with a 51.7 field goal percentage. The Orange shot just 43.8 percent against Butler while matching its lowest point total of the season.

Conventional wisdom suggested Butler had no chance Thursday unless it made plenty of 3-pointers to beat Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. Butler shot 6-of-24 from beyond the arc and won anyway.

Even after blowing a 10-point halftime lead, Butler showed enough poise to rally from a four-point deficit in the final 3½ minutes. Butler won even with its two best players – Hayward and junior forward Matt Howard – combining for just seven baskets. The Bulldogs pulled out the victory by reflecting the quiet confidence of their coach.

Brad Stevens is just 33 years old and looks about half that age. He was working as a marketing associate in Indianapolis a decade ago when he left the business world to launch a coaching career. He now has Butler in the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

“He’s cool under pressure,” Butler guard Ronald Nored said. “When you saw us get down, Coach isn’t rattled. Coach is still smiling. Coach is still encouraging.”

Butler also benefited from the efforts of role players such as Nored.

Nored scored in double-figures just five times all season, but he’s such an outstanding leader that his fellow students elected him freshman class president last year. He also is so fearless that he didn’t hesitate to take arguably the biggest 3-pointer in school history, even though he entered the night having shot 17.1 percent from beyond the arc.

Naturally, the shot went in. Nored’s basket – Butler’s first in nearly 6 ½ minutes – started an 11-0 run that put Butler ahead for good.

“It comes from Coach,” Nored said. “He has confidence in me. Other people might not believe. Fans might not believe. Whatever. That’s fine. Coach has confidence in me. That’s all that matters.”

Nored wasn’t the only role player to come up big.

One week after he shot 7-of-9 from 3-point range and scored 25 points in a first-round victory over UTEP, Shelvin Mack scored all 14 of his points in the first half to help Butler build a double-digit lead.

When Mack cooled off in the second half, Willie Veasley heated up.

The 6-3 senior forward added to his reputation as a guy who can guard just about anyone by helping limit 6-9 future NBA lottery pick Wes Johnson to 17 hard-earned points. Johnson, who was coming off a 31-point, 14-rebound performance against Gonzaga, attempted just three shots in the first half while being defended primarily by Veasley and Hayward.

Johnson didn’t make any baskets as big as the 3-pointer Veasley sank to put Butler ahead 58-54 with 1:48 remaining. Or the tip-in Veasley added less than a minute later.

“You talk about a senior that doesn’t get a lot of attention,” Stevens said. “Those people that have been around the program a lot know that Willie has been our rock. Willie had a three, a tip-in and got a loose ball when the game was on the line in the last 20 seconds. He’s a big-time winner.”

In fairness, Butler got plenty of cooperation from Syracuse.

For the first two rounds of this tournament, Syracuse couldn’t have played any better. For the first half of Thursday’s game, the Orange couldn’t have performed any worse.

Butler scored 12 of the game’s first 13 points as Syracuse went seven minutes before making a basket. Syracuse had an equal number of field-goal attempts (nine) and turnovers in the game’s first 13 minutes.

“I’m really at a loss,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We haven’t done that. [We had] a couple of games throughout the whole year maybe where we’ve turned it over, but not like that. Just hasn’t been our team. We haven’t done that.”

Butler made Syracuse look bad by playing a physical brand of defense that prevented the Orange from getting any easy baskets.

“Syracuse likes to play in transition,” Nored said. “When they’re playing in transition, when they’re going fast, they’re really good. Our goal was to make it tough for them, kind of make it an ugly game. Syracuse is really good. They play some pretty good teams. We just wanted to make it really ugly for them. We saw on film that when the games were tough and the games were ugly, Syracuse is not as good as when teams are just letting them play and letting them run free.”

Butler may have benefited from Syracuse’s poor performance in the first half, but the Bulldogs also found a way to recover even after the Orange started playing better.

The shooting of Johnson and Andy Rautins and Scoop Jardine helped Syracuse erase Butler’s double-digit halftime lead in just 6 ½ minutes. The lead went back and forth for a while, then Syracuse turned up its defensive intensity and threatened to pull away.

Butler looked just about dead with 3 ½ minutes remaining. Syracuse owned a 54-50 lead. Howard had four fouls. Butler hadn’t made a basket in more than six minutes.

Butler’s fans were worried. Butler’s players weren’t.

“We’re poised,” Nored said. “Our team’s thing is to stay together through anything, and I think we did that. People from the bench were talking to us, telling us what we needed to do. Coaches were talking to us. It all comes from Coach. It’s not something we started. ‘OK, stay together.’ Coach starts it. He’s our head. He gets us focused. I think that’s why we can be poised under pressure.”

Eventually fate began to smile on Butler.

How else to explain how Nored – the 17-percent shooter from beyond the arc – can drain a 3-pointer to get Butler right back in the game? Or how Veasley’s 3-pointer less than two minutes later fell through after rattling around the rim and hitting the backboard?

“That’s a H-O-R-S-E shot,” Veasley joked afterward. “I’ve never made anything like that.”

But don’t attribute this win to a couple of lucky shots. Butler produced 18 takeaways while committing only seven turnovers. Butler won pretty much every battle for a loose ball down the stretch. Even after falling behind in the second half, the Bulldogs never allowed Syracuse to deliver a knockout blow.

Butler has earned this moment. And what a moment it is. Only one win stands between the Bulldogs and a trip to the Final Four in Lucas Oil Stadium, about five miles away from Butler’s campus.

“I guess it’s fair to be able to contemplate that a little now, being one game away,” Howard said. “That would be great. I’m sure Indianapolis would love that.”

It would be a storybook finish.

Just don’t call it a Cinderella story.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.
Updated Thursday, Mar 25, 2010