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Butler's going home -- win or lose

3/26/2010
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY -- Even though Gordon Hayward grew up only 20 miles west of Indianapolis, he admits he knew very little about Butler University.

"It was always Indiana University and Purdue," Hayward said. "Both of my parents are Purdue graduates, so I was a really big Purdue fan. But I knew very little about Butler."

After stunning No. 1-seeded Syracuse 63-59 in the West Regional semifinals at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday night, the No. 5-seeded Bulldogs can become Indiana's -- and possibly America's -- favorite team at next week's Final Four in Indianapolis.

If Butler can win its 24th consecutive game against either No. 2-seeded Kansas State or No. 6-seeded Xavier in the West Regional finals on Saturday, it will become the first team since UCLA in 1972 to play in the Final Four in its home city.

"It would be something pretty special," Hayward said. "I think it just shows how far our program has come."

The Bulldogs still have to win another game to get there, but anything seems possible for them at this point. Butler beating Syracuse wasn't exactly No. 9-seeded Northern Iowa upsetting No. 1-seeded Kansas.

The Bulldogs are very good and have been for quite a while.

And now they have a victory over a No. 1 seed to prove it.

"We're not going to say we have the best athletes in the country, but we've got a system and we have to be crisp to execute it," Butler forward Matt Howard said. "We're not going to beat you one-one-one. We play for each other. There's not one guy on this team who is selfish and that's why we win."

The Bulldogs have played in the NCAA tournament nine times in the last 14 seasons, reaching the Sweet 16 three times in the last eight years. But until Thursday night, they had never advanced past the regional semifinals. Butler is the first team from the Horizon League to reach a regional final.

"I'm going home on Saturday night or Sunday morning, whenever the charter [plane] gets here," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "We're going to Indy. I just hope we still have season left. It's already daunting enough to play Kansas State or Xavier. They're two great teams. [My players] are still a long way away from playing in the Final Four."

The Orange were supposed to be taller, stronger and more athletic than the Bulldogs. Butler wasn't supposed to be able to score against Syracuse's seemingly impenetrable 2-3 zone defense, and the Orange were supposed to be more equipped to handle the pressure of playing on this kind of stage.

"People look at us and think we're not as athletic or talented and they don't see NBA lottery picks," Hayward said. "But it's a five-man game. Teams win games."

From the game's opening moments, it was clear Butler was ready to play. The Bulldogs took a 12-1 lead in the game's first seven minutes, holding Syracuse without a field goal during the first 7:02. Syracuse was the team that had problems handling the basketball against defensive pressure, as the Orange had 12 turnovers in the first half and 18 in the game.

Butler had only seven turnovers, its second-lowest total in a game this season.

"The game was a story of turnovers," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "They didn't make turnovers. They were really good with the basketball. We made 18 turnovers. You can't give away that many possessions. It was probably one of the two or three games all year where we have not been good with the basketball. We just made some unforced errors, just threw the ball out of bounds."

But the Bulldogs made big plays when they needed them, too. After blowing a 10-point lead in the second half, Butler fell behind 54-50 with 5:23 to play. But the Bulldogs scored the game's next 11 points. Senior guard Willie Veasley scored five straight points -- a 3-pointer that made it 58-54 and a tip-in that gave Butler a six-point lead with one minute left.

"You talk about a senior that doesn't get much attention," Stevens said of Veasley. "The people that have been around our program a lot know that Willie has been our rock. He's a big-time winner."

Veasley's 3-pointer bounced high off the rim, but somehow went through the net.

"I was already headed down the court because I figured it was going to go over the top and I missed it," Veasley said. "I looked back, it came back down and went through. That's a H-O-R-S-E shot. I never made anything like that."

The Bulldogs have already defeated Xavier once this season, winning 69-68 after a controversial finish at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indy on Dec. 19. Hayward scored the winning layup in the final seconds, but the clock inadvertently stopped during Butler's final possession. Officials reviewed the play, counted Hayward's shot and then ran off the final 1.3 seconds, taking away Xavier's last chance to win the game.

Kansas State might be a tougher matchup for the Bulldogs because of their size, but their lack of height didn't seem to matter against the Orange on Thursday night.

"We feel like we can play with anybody," Howard said. "To me, that's really all that matters. We know we can go out and play with anyone."