When the NCAA granted the Tribune-Star’s request for a press credential for the Final Four — the first time we’ve asked since I’ve been at the paper — I assumed being a smaller paper without any local coverage iron in the fire (Butler is a state team, but we don’t regularly cover them) meant we’d be seated in a distant corner of Lucas Oil Stadium.
To my surprise, the NCAA put the Tribune-Star directly behind the visiting bench Saturday. Cinderella’s bench.
It was a front-row seat for the ball as Butler was the visiting team against Michigan State in its national semifinal. How close? I was close enough to hear Butler’s bulldog mascot Blue II bark during pregame introductions.
Butler has defined the 2010 NCAA Tournament. After its 52-50 victory over Michigan State, Butler is playing for the national championship. It seems as unlikely for my fingers to be typing that sentence as it is for you to be reading it.
It’s a rare, rare treat to be as close as I was to a team that — win or lose Monday — will go down as one of the most iconic in NCAA history. With the clock still far from midnight, here’s a window into Cinderella’s world.
Here’s what I saw and heard from Butler’s bench during its historic victory Saturday:
Pre-game and first half
The first thing I wanted to observe was the demeanor of Butler coach Brad Stevens. The third-year coach is 33, one of the youngest to ever participate in the Final Four. His reaction to the massive crowd of 71,298, the Final Four-experienced Spartans and the monumental task of living up to Butler’s Cinderella aspirations would go a long way toward how Butler’s players would react in the biggest game of their lives.
So? Lets put it this way. If President Barack Obama is “No Drama Obama,” then Butler’s coach is “Even Stevens.” The lack of emotion or visible nervousness on Stevens’ face spoke volumes. His only show of outward emotion was to give all of the Bulldogs a pre-game five. Stevens’ even keel was vital in a tight game. It was a sharp contrast to West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who screamed and yelled at assistant coaches and players alike during the second semifinal.
Playing on a raised floor, coaches were provided a stool to sit on. It was the only thing that could make the cherubic coach look wizened as he took on a sort of old-sage pose in the rare times he actually sat in it.
Michigan State took a 14-7 lead and the Butler bench began to get nervous. Most of the Bulldogs stood on a step in front of their bench hoping to will their team to a defensive stop. Stevens had to warn them to sit down to avoid a possible technical foul.
The Spartans were in dire foul trouble, but there was concern on Butler’s bench for most of the half as the Bulldogs could not combine a bucket and stop to gain momentum. Matt Howard, who picked up two early fouls, sat helplessly on the bench. Nick Rodgers, a senior who rarely plays, yelled, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” when a foul was called on Veasley. The entire bench yelled “moving screen!” when Durrell Summers drove and scored a layup behind Butler’s defense. There was tension, but no panic.
All the while, Stevens paced the floor, seemingly, completely at ease. He said virtually nothing for the entire half, only occasionally barking out one-word instructions or shooting a quick glance to a player to let him know it was time to enter the game.
Finally, a steal by Willie Nored in the final minute of the half broke the tension. It led to a game-tying Mack 3-pointer and the concerned Butler bench was now on its feet. It was 28-28 at the break as Butler had the momentum.
Stevens finally shows emotion as he stomped his foot on the hardwood when Mack missed a defensive assignment on Michigan State’s second-half opening bucket. However, Butler would soon turn the tide. When the Bulldogs took a 32-31 lead on a Veasley putback, orders to sit down or not, Butler’s players were on their feet.
Butler did have some moments of wonderment unique to the Final Four. Nored was substituted after he missed a layup that could have kept a Butler run going. He told his teammates “my fault” before he took a seat on the bench. Rather than watch the action live, Nored watched the game unfold on Lucas Oil Stadium’s massive replay boards. He yelled encouragement to his teammates on the board, even though they were right behind him.
Butler led for most of the second half, but concern quickly turned to the Bulldogs’ health. Mack sat out most of the first half with what was later described as dehydration.
However, Howard was the source of most of the concern. The senior was part of a three-player collision underneath Michigan State’s basket and came out the worst for it as he hit the floor hard with his head.
Howard played on, but Butler trainer Ryan Galloy was alarmed. During a media timeout, he got Stevens’ attention and told him Howard needed to leave the game. Stevens complied.
Galloy did a concussion test on Howard on the sideline … Howard looked dazed. Galloy decided to wait, continually looking at his watch to see when he could test Howard again. Two media timeouts came and went. At one point, Stevens stepped down to the bench and told Howard, “I hope you feel better.”
Finally, Galloy felt he could test Howard again. The Connersville native jogged up and down a walkway and Galloy deemed him fit. Howard returned, though he was not much of a factor in the late going.
Meanwhile, Butler could not build on a lead that peaked at seven, nor could Michigan State get a run going. The Spartans sliced their deficit to three with 3:06 left. Stevens paced the sideline with an air of concern, but was still calm.
Butler’s players weren’t as calm as Michigan State cut its deficit to 50-49 in the final minute. When a Nored layup attempt went in and out with 29 seconds left, VanZant turned his head and yelled in frustration. The Spartans would have a possession to take the lead.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called timeout for the final possession. It gave Stevens and assistant coach Matt Graves time to draw up Butler’s defensive plan. There was no grand speech, no “let’s win one for the small schools,” just calm preparation. The Bulldogs went to work.
As it had throughout the game, Michigan State struggled to get an open look. Michigan State’s Draymond Green — well-defended by Gordon Hayward — eventually forced a leaner in the lane that was well short. Butler rebounded and Nored eventually hit two more free throws.
Mack — who Stevens later said was dehydrated — showed the most emotion. He snagged Stevens’ stool and sat in it himself on the floor. He slapped it when Nored made his first free throw.
Butler fouled Michigan State rather than give the Spartans a chance to tie. When Summers’ intentional miss was rebounded at the buzzer, Butler finally let loose.
The Bulldogs sprinted up the riser and celebrated at midcourt. Still not showing much emotion other than a satisfied grin, Stevens strolled to the opposite sideline to fulfill network TV interviews. Butler’s players proudly pulled on their jerseys and showed off the “Butler” name to a jubilant crowd.
The clock didn’t strike midnight for Butler. Cinderella’s ball continues Monday.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Golden’s blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.