NCAA online exclusive: Bulldog defense key to Butler’s improbable championship march
Butler coach Brad Stevens said he wasn’t happy with his team’s poor shooting in Saturday evening’s matchup against Michigan State.
The Bulldogs barely cracked 50 points. They shot 70 percent from the free-throw line. They were outrebounded.
Yet Butler continued its historic run with a 52-50 victory in its Final Four semifinal.
“I never would have dreamed we would’ve won if we shot 15 for 49,” Stevens said, “but our guys did a great job defending in the last 30 minutes of the game.”
MSU coach Tom Izzo said he thought the toughness of the Bulldog defense caught his team off guard.
“We didn’t get it done,” Izzo said. “I thought the physical play bothered us – that surprised me.”
For a game with only 102 total points, four first-half minutes without a basket and a nine second-half minutes in which Butler couldn’t make a field goal, this Final Four matchup started fast for both teams.
Michigan State guard Korie Lucious and Butler forward Gordon Hayward came out firing for their squads, nailing two 3-pointers each in the first two and a half minutes. MSU’s Draymond Green and Durrell Summers also chipped in for the Spartans, while Shelvin Mack of the Bulldogs put up 14 points.
Green picked up the majority of his minutes after the Spartan’s second-leading scorer Raymar Morgan hit the bench. Morgan committed three fouls by the halfway point of the first half. Except for those fouls, the beginning of the first half was clean, with only three turnovers in the first 10 minutes.
As time went on, though, the game lost its luster, with nine turnovers and a significant scoring dip. Both teams went into the second half with 28 points.
“It was definitely Butler basketball,” Bulldog forward Avery Jukes said. “We had to grind it out. It was a long game.”
Lucious started the second half the same way he did the first — putting up a three-pointer and bringing MSU fans to their feet. They would be silenced toward the middle of the half, though, as Morgan picked up his fourth foul.
As Morgan walked off the court, it was the Bulldog fans’ turn to make some noise, and Butler jumped ahead for the first time since its 7-6 lead in the first half.
As the second half went on, the Spartans’ foul troubles grew. Green, Morgan’s main replacement, picked up three fouls. So did starter Delvon Roe. Butler was in the bonus within the first nine minutes of play.
“You keep putting yourself on the edge of a cliff. You’re not going be able to stand on it long,” Roe said.
Still, Butler could not capitalize. The game remained close, and the Bulldogs went on the scoring drought that lasted more than nine minutes.
The lack of baskets didn’t lead to a lack of confidence, though.
“We’ve gone through stretches like that before where it feels like we can’t throw it in the ocean if we’re standing on the beach,” Hayward said. “For us, as long as we guard, we feel like we can still stay in the game.”
With a little less than a minute to go, the teams were within three points of each other. Butler took possession. After driving the clock down to 23 seconds, the Bulldogs’ Ronald Nored drove in for a layup. He watched the ball bounce in and out of the hoop and then fall into the hands of a Michigan State defender.
The Spartans would, presumably, have the final shot of the game. But at the other end, Nored made up for the miss. After a scramble near the basket, Nored stretched out for the ball, leapt across the court and drew a foul. He went to the free throw line, where he has been less than successful during the tournament.
He made both of his free throws, putting the Bulldogs up by three.
“I just thought they were going to go in,” Nored said of his free throws. “I’ve been practicing all week, practicing for the last few weeks.”
After Hayward grabbed a game-ending rebound with two seconds left, the noise level in Lucas Oil Stadium reached a new high.
Hayward stood at center court before the game. He looked around, took the scene in. He said he knew this was his team’s time.
“This is it,” he said. “This is what we’ve all played for. This is where should be.
“This is where we want to be.”
IU Final Four News Bureau
A team of Indiana University journalists is reporting for the Final Four Student News Bureau, a project between IU’s National Sports Journalism Center and the NCAA at the men’s tournament in Indianapolis. The Review, a paying ACP member, has access to this material.