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Butler Does Its Ugly Best

INDIANAPOLIS - The sense is something mystical is happening, something beyond all the rebounds, turnovers and missed shots - and oh, were there missed shots.

The thought is everything is going so perfectly for Butler, the sporting gods have taken control of the college basketball season.

The not-so-little metropolitan school that could, on Saturday night did it again.

Did it even making only one field goal the last 12 minutes and 18 seconds.

Did it by turning what should have been a glorious NCAA semifinal into an uncomfortable fingernails-on-the-blackboard struggle.

Did it by making light of an overheard remark from a student videotaping practice back in the fall who said, "Somebody picked us to go to the Final Four. We're good, but we're not that good.''

Did it by beating Michigan State, 52-50, before a raucous crowd of 71,298 at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Indianapolis Colts' mammoth football arena located 5.9 miles from campus.

Ugly? This game? Was it ever.

"I never dreamed we would have won if we shot 15 for 49,'' said Butler's 33-year-old coach, Brad Stevens, analyzing the 30.6 shooting percentage of his team.

But it also was magnificent for Butler, which extracts wins like dentist do teeth, painfully.

In one of those stats that can be taken as you choose, Butler has become the first team in the shot-clock era, after 1985, to hold each of five straight tournament opponents under 60 points.

Some key stops, some fortunate officials calls, one great rebound and pass with 1:36 to play for their lone basket in the final 12:18, and the Bulldogs are into the championship game, against Duke, on Monday night.

This story of a mid-major with a gym, Hinkle Fieldhouse, more famous than the team - the movie "Hoosiers" was filmed there a quarter-century past - continues to spiral without an end.

The Bulldogs are into Monday's night final carrying a 25-game win streak, the longest in America, and carrying the hopes of a state where basketball seems less a game than a way of life.

"This is all about promoting Butler,'' said Stevens when told moments after the victory that the students who couldn't get into Lucas Stadium had a wild TV viewing party at Hinkle.

"That's my job. That's our players. Came to be part of a special program.''

Part of a team that hangs onto the ball even when the opponent is hanging onto the lead, a team which fell behind Michigan State by seven points in the first half and then went ahead by seven in the second.

"It was cool,'' said Stevens about the win, and the fans' response. "It was unbelievable.''

Not that unbelievable. Butler, as Michigan State a No. 5 seed, was the favorite, even though State was in the final game last year, even though State coach Tom Izzo has been in the Final Four six times, while Stevens hadn't been there once.

Ten years ago Stevens, who played at DePauw University in Indiana, was just out of college, working as a marketing associate for the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical firm, Eli Lily. He became a basketball volunteer at Butler, joined the staff and three years ago was elevated to head coach.

Wasn't it mentioned the sporting gods are heavily involved in all this?

"Now it looks like a great idea,'' said Stevens of his move. Especially since Butler is 89-14 in three seasons.

"Our guys did a great job defending in the last 30 minutes,'' Stevens said of his somehow-we-came-out-on-top finish against the Spartans. "I think Michigan State had 21 at the 10-minute mark of the first half (specifically, the 9:48 mark) and after that I guess scored 29.''

Or roughly a point a minute. Great for football. Awful for basketball.

"They are physical,'' said Izzo. "But they shoot 30 percent, we out-rebound them (36-32), and we just couldn't find a way to win it.''

Because Butler could find a way.

Because Butler sophomore Gordon Hayward, who had a game-high 15 points, made a layup with 1:36 remaining after the Bulldogs had gone without a field goal for more than 10 minutes. The basket came after a rebound and brilliant, flying pass from Shawn Vanzant.

Because Ronald Nored, who had been 3-for-12 on free throws in the previous four tournament games, stepped up to the line with six seconds to play and made both attempts to give the Bulldogs a 52-49 lead.

"I've been so terrible,'' said Nored, "I thought if I focus. I just did my routine, took a deep breath, knocked it in. My teammates believed in me. My coach believed in me. That's all it was.''

This season for Butler, there's a great deal more.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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