Jonathan daniel/Getty Images
Coach Tom Izzo and Draymond Green had their dream of consecutive title game appearances squashed by Butler. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS — The story has one more chapter. The little, mid-major school that began its season with big hopes and a growing reputation traveled 6 miles to Lucas Oil Stadium last night and took on Michigan State in a Final Four semifinal game.
And when the final buzzer sounded, the Butler Bulldogs — the Horizon League Butler Bulldogs — won their 25th consecutive game and earned a spot in their first national championship game with a 52-50 victory.
Butler (33-4) will meet Duke, a 78-57 victor over West Virginia in the other semifinal, in the championship game tomorrow night.
The Cinderella tale continues for coach Brad Stevens and his Bulldogs, who are the first Final Four hometown team since UCLA in 1972.
Gordon Hayward, who set the tone for the game by scoring 10 of Butler’s first 12 points, said the Bulldogs’ mission is now clear, always has been.
“This is what we’ve played for,’’ he said. “This is where we should be. This is where we want to be. Just ready to go.’’
References to a 2010 version of the film “Hoosiers’’ were part of the buildup, especially with Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo playing the role of spoilers. Izzo had brought six Spartan teams to the Final Four in the last 12 years. But Butler had legitimate credentials. It hadn’t lost a game in three months and hadn’t lost at home all season.
This one — like all games against Michigan State — was not easy. The teams played at a high level in a first half that ended in a 28-28 tie in which neither team could put together an extended run.
That changed early in the second half as the Bulldogs took a 7-point lead at 12:18 with a Willie Veasley dunk. The Spartans steadily whittled the deficit as the clock ticked off in front of a sold-out crowd of 71,298, most of whom sounded like Butler fans.
As it has the last two weekends, it came down to gut-check time for the Spartans (28-9). Michigan State had won its first four tournament games by margins of 3, 2, 7, and 1 point, the narrowest total by a team since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
And until the final seconds, it looked like the Spartans were working on another comeback, which would have put them in the title game for the second straight season.
With 30 seconds left and Butler clinging to a 50-49 lead, Bulldogs guard Ronald Nored drove to the hoop and put up a floater that spun around the rim and into the arms of Michigan State’s Draymond Green, who called time.
With the clock down to eight seconds, Green’s jumper from 10 feet was short and grabbed by Nored, who was immediately fouled.
He made both free throws to give Butler a 3-point cushion and Michigan State had one final chance. After another timeout, the Spartans got the ball to point guard Korie Lucious, who never had a chance to put up a tying 3-pointer. Lucious was fouled. He made the first shot then deliberately missed the second, and when the rebound was grabbed by Hayward, who had 19 points and nine rebounds, Butler’s dream season had been extended.
The Bulldogs say they are ready.
“We have one more game on Monday night,’’ said junior guard Zach Hahn. “We just didn’t come here to be one and done. We wanted to push throughout tonight, take care of business, and make our way to Monday. That’s what we set our goal to be at the end of the regular season.’’
Stevens, who no doubt will move to the top of the list for many schools with coaching vacancies — perhaps Boston College? — said that this dream began before the season.
“We said in our first team meeting in the fall, if we focus, do our jobs, then why can’t we play for a national championship,’’ said Stevens. “That’s been our focus all along. This is a great story.’’
Yes, it is.
And it’s not over.