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COLUMN | GAME STORY | ENTERPRISE | MAGAZINE FEATURE | FEATURE
FIRST PLACE: GAME STORY
NEW ORLEANS Last year's run to the Final Four was pure storybook. This one is saccharine fiction.
Butler lost Gordon Hayward to the NBA, lost nine of its first 23 games, lost its crunch-time magic and defensive mojo. Yet the Bulldogs never lost their way.
And now? They have won 13 in a row the nation's longest active streak and are headed to Houston. College basketball's ongoing drama continues.
Shelvin Mack sank the go-ahead 3-pointer and two late free throws, capping an 11-point comeback and sending Butler past Florida 74-71 in overtime Saturday night at the Southeast Regional.
The Bulldogs are back in the Final Four.
"Getting to this point isn't easy and staying together isn't easy when everything is going wrong," junior guard Ronald Nored said. "And that was the thing that I think has gotten us to this point."
Not easy? That is understating it.
Butler has been an underdog in the betting line or by seeding in eight consecutive NCAA Tournament games over 12 months. It has won all but one. Three of its four victories in this tournament have been by two, one and three (in overtime).
The victory soothed bitter memories of losses to Florida that eliminated the Bulldogs from the 2000 and 2007 tournaments.
The No. 8-seeded Bulldogs (27-9) will meet No. 1 seed Kansas (35-2) or No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth (26-11) next Saturday in a national semifinal.
No. 2 seed Florida finished 29-8.
Mack, who ended hostilities with a bandage over a bleeding forehead, scored 27 points. He was voted most outstanding player of the regional.
"It's a physical game. That's what the NCAA Tournament is all about," he said.
Butler came within Hayward's half-court shot of knocking off Duke in the 2010 national championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. The theatre troupe moves west.
"We've got some unfinished business in Houston," Butler president Bobby Fong said amid a euphoric group of fans in a corner of New Orleans Arena.
Butler appeared to be out of business when Florida seized a 51-40 lead midway through the second half. The Bulldogs couldn't make 3-pointers or free throws, and they couldn't stop Florida center Vernon Macklin. He scored a career-high 25 points.
As the Bulldogs teetered, coach Brad Stevens tinkered. He inserted freshman Chrishawn Hopkins who had played seven minutes over 17 games since Jan. 14 and was rewarded for the ploy.
With Butler trailing 53-44, Hopkins passed inside to Matt Howard for a layup. Then Hopkins sank his first 3-pointer since Jan.3.
Florida 53, Butler 49.
"We just said, Score, stop, score, and the game will get a lot tighter,' " Stevens said.
Mack sank two layups to tie the score at 57, then two free throws to pull Butler within 60-59. Howard was fouled with 30.7 seconds left and made the first of two free throws to produce a 60-60 tie. The second free throw, a potential game-winner, came up short.
A long 3-pointer by Florida's Erving Walker missed before the buzzer, and overtime ensued.
Another freshman, Khyle Marshall, converted a three-point play to push Butler ahead 65-62 with 3:33 left in overtime. Nored, a 63 percent free throw shooter, sank four in a row to preserve the lead.
Then Walker's basket his only one of the game was a 3-pointer that returned the lead to the Gators, 70-69 with 1:41 left.
Mack's respondent 3-pointer made it 72-70 with 1:21 on the clock, and his two free throws expanded that to 74-71 with 10.6 seconds left.
Champ Ligon, his former high school coach in Lexington, Ky., had seen it all before.
"Every time we had a big game, Shelvin would take over and get us a W,' " Ligon said. "That's his career. He's been doing it since the eighth grade."
Walker missed another 3-point attempt that was snared by Nored, who tossed the ball into the backcourt.
The seconds ticked away. A season that was slipping away is instead rushing on.
"I'm incredibly proud of these guys," Stevens said. "They carried their coach in a big way. I got outcoached big-time. But our assistants did a great job and our players did a great job. Just a special group."
Butler struggled against Florida's shifting zone and man-to-man defenses and was 9-of-33 (27 percent) on 3-pointers. The Bulldogs shot an uncharacteristic 17-of-27 on free throws (63 percent) but were 7-of-7 in overtime.
They overcame shortcomings collectively.
Howard scored 14 points and Marshall 10. Andrew Smith, playing despite an ankle sprain, grabbed eight rebounds to lead Butler to a 41-34 edge in that column.
Butler became the first team outside the six major conferences to reach back-to-back Final Fours since UNLV in 1990 and 1991. Butler is the first small school to do so since University of San Francisco took titles in 1955 and 1956.
Butler is the first team from Indiana ever to go back-to-back.
The joyous aftermath was highlighted by Stevens leaping to body-bump Emerson Kampen, as they did when the Bulldogs won last year's West Regional at Salt Lake City. Then coach and players took turns cutting down the nets.
The moment so overwhelmed senior guard Shawn Vanzant that he left the others to sit alone with his thoughts.
"I'm soaking it all in," he said.
In that, he was not alone.
Second place: Phil Chardis, Manchester Journal Inquirer
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