It wasn't pretty but because of their defensive grit and the ability to take advantage of Michigan State mistakes, the Butler Bulldogs find themselves forty minutes away from striking a significant blow for all schools whose operating budgets reside below the "Red Line". Despite going almost eleven game minutes without a field goal (10:42 to be exact), Brad Stevens' team will play Duke on Monday night as a result of outscoring the Spartans 20-2 in points off of turnovers and making twelve of seventeen from the charity stripe in the final twenty minutes (by comparison, Michigan State made just five of twelve second-half foul shots).
Gordon Hayward (19 points) and Shelvin Mack (14 points) once again led the way on an evening that saw Matt Howard once again get into first-half foul trouble, keeping the Bulldogs afloat in the first half as everyone else struggled to get going offensively. Those two combined for 25 points in the first half and Butler scored ten off of seven Michigan State turnovers to get into the locker room tied at 28. When you get nothing from Howard and no field goals from anyone else (9-24 FG) that's a serious blessing from the basketball gods. Durrell Summers led Michigan State with 14 points while Korie Lucious and Draymond Green scored 12 apiece.
Butler didn't shoot well from the field, making just 30.6% of their shots from the field. But their opportunistic nature has been the calling card throughout the Bulldogs' run to the national title game, and that was evident in both their scoring off of turnovers and getting points at the foul line when they were unable to score from the field. "For us, as long as we guard, we feel like we can be in games," said Hayward. "That's what we've tried to do all year. We've gone through stretches like that before where it seems like we can't throw it in the ocean and we're standing on the beach."
In the time between Willie Veasley's dunk with 12:18 left in the game to make the score 44-37 and Hayward's layup with 1:36 to go (thanks in large part to a crucial offensive board from Shawn Vanzant), Butler scored just four points...but Michigan State was able to counter with just nine. Most will complain about the artistic nature (or lack thereof) of the first semifinal but that stretch typified why Butler is on their current 25-game win streak. It's not always a matter of being the more talented team, which they were on many nights in the Horizon League; sometimes you simply have to buckle down and step up in other areas in order to pick up the win.
But the Spartans did not go down quietly, pulling to within one (50-49) following free throws from Summers (one) and Green (two following his offensive rebound of Summers' miss). But with a chance to take the lead with eight seconds remaining Green's jumper in the lane fell short (a definite argument can be made that he was fouled), forcing the Spartans to foul Ronald Nored with six seconds remaining. The sophomore, who had shot poorly from the line throughout the tournament, made both to push the lead back to three.
"I shot so many short," said Nored. "So I just wanted to kind of get my elbow under and just finish high, and then flick my wrist. It looks like I'm aiming it. It feels like I'm aiming it rather than shooting it. All week, [with] our coach, Coach Shrewsberry, he was working with me on finishing through and finishing high. That's been the difference."
Michigan State thought they were going to get a chance to tie it but the Bulldogs gave the foul, sending Korie Lucious to the line with two seconds remaining. But after making the first the Spartans were unable to grab the intentionally missed second foul shot, giving Butler the 52-50 victory. Improbable? Maybe so, but the urge to paint this with the broad "heartwarming made for Hollywood story" brush stroke should not be done at the expense of realizing how good of a team Butler is. You don't get this far by riding on the coattails of fairy tales.
INJURY ISSUES: Shelvin Mack (dehydration) and Matt Howard (possible concussion) Both will be re-evaluated by the Butler medical staff on Sunday.
The second game lacked the suspense of the first matchup with Duke putting forth arguably its best showing of the year (the win over North Carolina at Cameron may be the only one at that level) in a 78-57 beating of West Virginia. The "big three" combined to score 63 of the Blue Devils' 78 points in the rout, capitalizing numerous times on the Mountaineers' switching defense not challenging shooters as well as the frontcourt grabbing eleven offensive boards that were converted into nineteen second-chance points. Jon Scheyer led all scorers with 23 points while Kyle Singler added 21 and Nolan Smith 19, and all three had at least five assists apiece. When Duke is playing as well as they did on Saturday night they're are extremely difficult to beat.
"Well, what's really hard is if you try to do too many things to keep the ball out of those three guys, and those three perimeter guys are terrific," said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. "You turn the other two guys lose at the rim to rebound the ball, and I don't think you can let them offensive rebound the ball."
Brian Zoubek, who enjoyed a seven-inch height advantage over Wellington Smith, grabbed five offensive boards and ten total (three assists also), contributing to the Blue Devils finishing the game with an offensive rebounding percentage of 40.7%. They were the team able to play within their character and as a result they move on to the title game. Duke hit thirteen of twenty-five shots from beyond the arc, outscoring the Mountaineers by 24 points in that aspect of the game. When you shoot 52.7% from the field and 52.0% from three you stand a very good chance of winning to say the least.
"I just think we keep getting better," said Mike Krzyzewski. "We've gotten better throughout the year. We got better this week. It's a really good team and it can do something great on Monday night. That's what we're going to try to do."
Singler's other important contribution came on the defensive end, where he was the primary defender on Da'Sean Butler. Butler, who ends his career as West Virginia's third-best all-time scorer, made just two of eight shots from the field (10 points) before going down just over halfway through the second half with a left knee injury. He and Coach Huggins said after the game that it was a sprain but would be re-evaluated early next week. Smith led the way with 12 points while Devin Ebanks added 11 but when you're best player struggles from the field against a team as potent offensively as Duke you're fighting an uphill battle.
The injury brought about one of what will likely be one of the enduring images of the tournament, with Coach Huggins comforting the disconsolate senior as he was on the floor in pain. "Da'Sean is -- and I've said this repeatedly, and I mean it, he's a really, really good player," said Huggins. "He's a lot better person. He's a wonderful, wonderful guy. When I went out, you know, it was more he felt like he let his team down than it was about the injury. And that's Da'Sean. You know, that's the way he is. He's got such a great heart."
Las Vegas installed the Blue Devils as an early 6.5 point favorite.