INDIANAPOLIS – It took one gutty decision, five bold dribbles and four dramatic bounces on the rim for Alex Barlow to become the toast of college basketball Saturday afternoon.
It was partially an act of belief and partially an act of desperation that sent the Butler walk-on guard to the basket against No. 1 Indiana in a tie game in overtime. The sophomore who came into this season with one collegiate field goal was absolutely the Bulldogs' fifth offensive option at that moment, but there was no time to play the percentages and nobody open to defer to.
Coach Brad Stevens had drawn up a play for his jump shooters on the wings, or, failing that, an entry pass to a screener inside. But with his four teammates covered as the final seconds drained, it was up to the no-name kid with the ball to make something happen.
"Once it got down to six [seconds], there was no hesitation," Barlow said. "I was going to shoot that unless someone else got wide open."
No one did, so self-doubt was out. It was time for a guy averaging 1.5 points per game to decide one of the better December games you'll ever see.
Forty feet out, the Cincinnati Moeller High School graduate pounded a right-to-left crossover dribble on Indiana's Jordan Hulls and drove into the lane. Once there, he pivoted back to his right with a final dribble and flipped a six-foot floater at the rim. It kissed once, twice, thrice – four times on the iron.
"When it was hitting around the rim," Barlow said, "I was just hoping."
Hope was rewarded, backyard dreams were fulfilled, Hollywood scripts were turned real. The shot fell through with 2.5 seconds left, securing an 88-86 triumph that is Butler's first-ever victory against a No. 1 team and the biggest regular-season victory in school history.
Almost exactly a year removed from stunning No. 1 Kentucky in Bloomington, the Hoosiers were on the receiving end of the most memorable upset of the season so far. Tom Crean's program has come a long way in a hurry, from hunter to hunted, and although this was by no means a bad loss, it does show that the Hoosiers are far from complete. They were outrebounded and occasionally outhustled, and preseason national Player of the Year Cody Zeller seemed to back down for long stretches against Butler's physical play.
"I'm excited about the rebounding drills we are going to do," Crean said. "Though I'm not sure there are many people who are going to share my excitement about that. Right now that's an area where we really need to prove ourselves."
Butler has proven itself yet again. Even after the departure of program builders Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, the Bulldogs remain national contenders.
After consecutive appearances in the national championship game in 2010 and '11, Butler's improbable prowess is well-established. But that doesn't mean Fairy Tale U. has run out of ways to amaze. The Bulldogs found some fresh ones in raucous Bankers Life Fieldhouse Saturday.
"Such a gutty effort by our guys," Stevens said.
Guts is the only explanation for Butler finding a way to win after losing a seven-point lead in the final 123 seconds of regulation.
Butler prevailed with three players fouled out in overtime, leaving a comically undersized team to combat Zeller & Co. First to foul out was Roosevelt Jones, who Stevens said was "the best player on the floor" after racking up 16 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks in just 29 minutes. Then it was center Andrew Smith (12 points, nine rebounds, two blocks), who has made himself a physical force inside. Finally, it was backup forward Erik Fromm, who contributed 10 points and five offensive rebounds.
Down 84-80 with less than two minutes left in OT and a patchwork lineup on the floor, even Stevens was losing hope.
"I thought we were in trouble," he said.
But the 3-point shot changed everything. First sharp-shooter Rotnei Clarke wiggled free from the Indiana defense that dogged him all day for a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 95 seconds left. Then after an IU turnover, it was Chase Stigall, who had missed an open game-winner at the buzzer of regulation, drilling one from out front with less than a minute remaining.
Suddenly, somehow, a lineup that shouldn't have been within 10 points was up two.
"Whatever five guys are on the court, you're still held accountable," said Stigall, a 6-foot-3 guard who at the time was playing power forward. "You've got to keep playing like any other five that would be out there."
That Butler mentality – the confidence, the fearlessness, the competitiveness – that flows from Stevens is part of what attracted Barlow to the school. He wants to be a coach, and he wanted to learn the Butler Way from Stevens. He just had to convince the coach to take him.
Barlow was more highly acclaimed as a shortstop than a basketball prospect, barely playing any AAU hoops during high school. The only schools that were interested in him as a basketball player were Division II Bellarmine University and Northern Kentucky University. So he took his chances as a walk-on.
He was tattooed to the Butler bench as a freshman, finally getting some meaningful minutes last March in the College Basketball Invitational. After an offseason of late-night shooting sessions in Hinkle Fieldhouse, Barlow played his way into the rotation this year, though he saw only seven minutes of action in three games in the Maui Invitational.
But two games ago, Stevens inserted Barlow in the starting lineup at point guard. Still, Barlow had scored only 12 points all season prior to Saturday. That's when Stevens' promotion to starter was rewarded with a career-high six points, all with the game on the line.
"People say he's a walk-on," said Stigall. "No, he's a player."
About four hours before every game, Barlow calls his dad, Tom, for a brief pep talk. Saturday morning, he placed the call from Hinkle before the Butler bus rolled south into downtown Indy.
"You worked for this your whole life," Tom Barlow told his son. "Now you're going to get a chance to play the No. 1 team in the country."
Then he got the ritual pregame text from his mom, Tami.
"Have fun, play hard, kick some butt, enjoy the moment and cheer your teammates on," it said.
By the surreal end of this thrilling game, Alex Barlow's teammates were doing the cheering for him. Just the way they draw it up in the backyard, if not in the huddle.
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