San Diego State found a last-minute buzzer-beater to reach the title game: NPR
David J. Phillip/AP
HOUSTON — San Diego State’s vaunted defense rocked nicely in the second half as the fluid Atlantic Florida took a 14-point lead.
The Aztecs got their teeth back to getting back into the game. Then Lamont Butler delivered at the very end.
Butler hit a buzzer-beating jumper for the ages, sending San Diego State to its first national championship game with a 72-71 win over fellow midfielder Florida Atlantic in the Final Four on Saturday night.
“I didn’t really realize how big it was,” Butler said after his calm reaction to one of the greatest shots in NCAA Tournament history. “We are going to the national championship. That’s not what a lot of people do.”
A diabolical defense had pushed San Diego State (32-6) to the final stage of the NCAA Tournament. The Aztecs slammed and harassed their opponents all season to create the first major national semi-final since VCU and Butler in 2011.
The swaggy Owls (35-4) seemed to have solved San Diego State’s vaunted defense, using consistent movement and ball reversals to create lags they could exploit.
San Diego State found their defensive mojo midway through the second half, putting down the Owls while cutting their lead to one over short jumper Jaedon LeDee with 36 seconds left.
When FAU’s Johnell Davis missed a disputed layup, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher opted not to call a timeout, joking that he was out of time. game.
All he had to do was give the ball to Butler.
With the clock ticking, Butler dribbled to the baseline, found that cut and turned around. He backed up to create a small room and hit a jumper that sent the Aztecs running across the floor and sent San Diego Padres fans wild at Petco Park.
Butler’s winning buzzer-beater was the first for the Final Four since Jalen Suggs for Gonzaga against UCLA in 2021 and No. 5 overall. But it’s the only one where the winning team was trailing when the shot was taken.
Next up for Mountain West’s Final Four first team is a chance to claim the conference’s first national title on Monday night against UConn, which advanced with a 72-59 win over Miami.
“We’ve always been knocked down,” said San Diego State’s Matt Bradley, who had 21 points after struggling in the previous three games. “But the most important thing we always do is pick ourselves up and keep fighting.”
San Diego State had been down that road ever since coach Brian Dutcher took over from his longtime mentor, Steve Fisher. Dutcher followed the mold Fisher created, adding an extra dose of villainy to the defense.
The Aztecs lost an opportunity while in position for a No. 1 seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, only to have it wiped out by the pandemic.
San Diego State followed a pair of NCAA Tournament first-round extinctions with a strong 2023 season, winning 27 games to earn a No. 5 seed in the East Region in this year’s bracket. .
Once the NCAA Tournament began, the Aztecs beefed up their defense even further, limiting their first four opponents to averaging 57 points per game and 17% shooting from the 3-point arc.
FAU found an answer through fast ball movement, with the occasional drop into the post to keep the Aztecs honest.
The result: The Owls led 40-33 at halftime after hitting 5 of 11 3-pointers against a defense that limited its two previous NCAA Tournament opponents to 5 of 44 shots from the arc.
FAU continued to shoot, extending the lead to 14 midway through the second half.
Then, with Fisher watching in the stands, the Aztecs got serious.
Contesting nearly every shot and pass while pulling off a string of offensive rebounds, including six in 59 seconds, San Diego State rallied to tie it at 65 all.
“They ran, getting extra possessions,” said Nick Boyd of FAU, who hit three top 3s and finished with 12 points. “It was really the turning point of the match.”
The FAU held San Diego State at bay for most of the second half thanks to Alijah Martin, who seemed to have an answer to every Aztecs move by scoring 19 of his 26 second half points.
He hit a reverse layup with 45 seconds left to put FAU up 71-68, but wasn’t enough to stop the Owls’ unlikely run from ending.
“These guys have created memories and a legacy that will last a lifetime,” said FAU coach Dusty May.
The Aztecs did the same – with one more chance to add.