Riverside's Lamont Butler driven to help San Diego State return to the Final Four

San Diego State guard Lamont Butler shoots during an NCAA tournament game against Yale in Spokane, Wash., on Sunday.
San Diego State guard Lamont Butler shoots during an NCAA tournament game against Yale in Spokane, Wash., on Sunday. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

The clock was winding down. With 17.5 seconds standing between the San Diego State men's basketball team and victory, time was its biggest adversary.

The Aztecs clawed their way back from a 14-point deficit in the second half against Florida Atlantic and were now one play away from making history as the first San Diego State team to make it to the NCAA tournament championship game.

The competitive stakes were at an all-time high, and the fate of the game fell on one player: senior point guard Lamont Butler.

One by one, the seconds disappeared. Butler, who hails from Riverside, remained steadfast. With two seconds remaining and down one, he pulled up for a 15-footer he’s shot a million times and sent the Aztecs to the championship with a 72-71 win.

"When it left my hand it felt good," he said. "The energy was crazy, it kind of felt like a dream," said Butler.

San Diego State guard Lamont Butler celebrates with teammates after he hit the winning basket
San Diego State guard Lamont Butler, center, celebrates with teammates after he hit the winning basket against Florida Atlantic during the Final Four on April 1, 2023, in Houston. (Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

Though the Aztecs fell to UConn in the title game, Butler and his teammates have a shot at redemption when they face the Huskies again Thursday for a spot in the Elite Eight.

The teams will play in Boston, which is essentially a home game for UConn.

While Butler’s moment of greatness is cemented in history, he remains anonymous to many. Having overcome personal adversity, Butler’s commitment to endless basketball drills and a little Rubik’s Cube prepared him for his last NCAA tournament run.

“From the beginning of the year, we felt we had that team that could make it to the March Madness and eventually make it to the Final Four in the national championship game,” said Butler. “That's a goal that we set out from the jump. As the year went on, we have become more cohesive and more connected and just ready for our opponents.”

A family game

Growing up in Riverside, Butler watched his three older sisters, whom he refers to as "the three moms in his life," play the game he loves.

"My family is everything to me," said Butler. "Even in high school, middle school, AAU games, there were always five or six people sitting on the sideline."

In the middle of Butler's sophomore season at San Diego State, the voice of one fan was silenced.

Asasha Hall, the youngest of Butler's "three moms," was shot and killed in her home by a 24-year-old relative who lived with Hall, her husband and their children.

"She'd go to every home game. She was one of the loudest ones at the games and she was always a big supporter of me," Butler said. "I love her to death. And hearing that news is always tough. So going through the season, it was kind of hard to battle back from that. But I felt like having my family, having my teammates and coaches that kind of helped me get through that in a great way. And I was able to get through that year and then the next year I just tried to go all in for her."

San Diego State guard Lamont Butler drives as UConn guard Jordan Hawkins defends during the 2023 national championship
San Diego State guard Lamont Butler drives as UConn guard Jordan Hawkins defends during the 2023 national championship game in Houston. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Butler went all in, pushing through the loss by continuing his intense training regimen and pursuing an NBA career.

"I definitely want to do it for her. I mean, I know she's up there watching, so I definitely feel extra motivation because of that," Butler said of his sister.

The work

"It's been a four-year grind," said Butler's trainer Phil Scott.

For serious students of the game, the offseason is typically dedicated to tuning up the player's weak points. Whether it be shooting, ball handling, pace or pick-and-roll reads, Butler works to improve all aspects of his physical and mental approach to the game by working out a minimum of two to three times a day in the offseason.

Butler also attends "tune-up" workouts, as Scott says, during the season on top of his weight training and team practices.

San Diego State guard Lamont Butler dunks during an NCAA tournament game.
San Diego State guard Lamont Butler (5) dunks during an NCAA tournament game against Yale in Spokane, Wash., on Sunday. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

Butler, who cites Kobe Bryant as one of his greatest influences, challenges himself mentally outside of basketball.

"I like playing with the Rubik's Cube, doing puzzles or creating music with my teammates," Butler said.

He says these creative, strategic activities help activate different parts of the brain that make it possible for him to make adjustments when the original path proves unsuccessful, just as he did during the 2023 Final Four.

Mistakes and lessons learned

Even with hours of time and energy dedicated to the sport, wins are never guaranteed and mistakes are inevitable.

Earlier this season, with 13 seconds remaining, San Diego State held a two-point lead over Arkansas in a battle for third place at the Maui Invitational.

Arkansas point guard Anthony Black had just hit two free throws after getting fouled by Butler.

With two points standing between the Aztecs and victory, they just needed to hold onto the ball for 13 seconds. Under an intense double team, Butler turned over the ball with seven seconds remaining.

"I got the ball, and then they took the ball from me. And after that, they scored," Butler said.

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The Aztecs went on to lose 78-74 in overtime.

"The mistakes I made at the end kind of cost us," Butler said. "... Everybody on Instagram and Twitter were like, saying bad things about me. I shouldn't have been in or I shouldn't have been playing."

But Butler knew he could not let outside thoughts corrupt his feelings about himself and his game.

"You can do 100 things right, but people only look at the one negative thing," Butler said.

So how does a player come back from that?

"I just kept working, stayed humble, and then tried to put myself in the best position and try not to make those mistakes when the game did come on the line in later games," he said.

What’s next?

Entering this season, Butler hoped to lead his young team to a winning season. While his regular season offensive performance has been middle of the road, averaging 9.4 points per game, Butler was named the Mountain West conference defensive player of the year.

And yet, the point guard’s name rarely is mentioned in NBA draft conversations.

However, Butler has used the NCAA tournament to emerge from the shadows.

Butler helped San Diego State beat UAB in the first round of the NCAA tournament, leading the Aztecs in assists, stealing the ball four times and scoring 15 points.

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In the second round against Yale, Butler and fellow starters played less during an 85-57 blowout win. He finished with nine points and three assists.

As the Aztecs prepare to face off against overall No. 1 UConn, Butler looks forward to the challenge.

"All in all, I’m excited to get on the court and play,” Butler said. “I always try to get in the gym to do certain things that will pay dividends throughout the whole year so that I’m prepared for games like this. This opportunity is something that we dream of."

Jordan Ruttert, a New York University student, contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.