Butler’s buzzer-beater sends San Diego State to the title game

HOUSTON (AP) — San Diego State’s vaunted defense came up short in the second half when Florida Atlantic jumped out to a 14-point lead.

The Aztecs found their teeth again to get back into the game. Then Lamont Butler brought it all the way.

Butler hit a jumper for the ages to send San Diego State to its first national championship with a 72-71 victory over Florida Atlantic in the Final Four on Saturday night.

“I didn’t really know how big it was,” Butler said after a quiet reaction One of the greatest shots in NCAA Tournament history. “We’re going to the national championship. That’s not something a lot of people do.”

A wily defense led San Diego State (32-6) to its final stop in the NCAA Tournament. The Aztecs battled and harassed opponents all season long to make their first major national semifinal appearance since VCU and Butler in 2011.

The wily Owls (35-4) looked to solve San Diego State’s proud defense, constantly moving and turning the ball over to create mismatches they could exploit.

San Diego State found its defensive mojo midway through the second half, beating the Owls with 36 seconds left on Jaedon Leday’s short jumper.

When FAU’s Jonelle Davis missed a contested layup, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher decided not to call a timeout, joking that he didn’t have a game left.

All he had to do was make a ball for Butler.

With the clock winding down, Butler dribbled to the baseline, found it cut off and turned back. He stepped back to create a little room and hit a jumper that sent the Aztecs to the floor and San Diego Padres fans run away at Petco Park.

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Butler’s game-winning buzzer-beater was the first in the Final Four since Jalen Suggs for Gonzaga against UCLA in 2021 and No. 5 overall. But this is the only time when the winning team was behind at the time of the shootout.

The Mountain West’s first Final Four team has a chance to win the conference’s first national title Monday night against UConn, which advanced with a 72-59 victory over Miami.

“We were always down,” said San Diego State’s Matt Bradley, who had 21 points after struggling through the previous three games. “But the biggest thing we always do is get up and keep fighting.”

San Diego State has been building toward that since coach Brian Hotcher took over for his longtime mentor Steve Fisher. Dutcher followed the mold created by Fisher, adding an extra nastiness to the defense.

The Aztecs missed an opportunity when they were the No. 1 seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, only to be wiped out by the pandemic.

San Diego State followed up a pair of NCAA Tournament first-round playoffs with a solid 2023 season, winning 27 games and earning the No. 5 seed in the East Region in this year’s bracket.

Since the start of the NCAA Tournament, the Aztecs have further strengthened their defense, holding their first four opponents to an average of 57 points per game and shooting 17% from the 3-point arc.

FAU found an answer by moving the ball quickly, occasionally putting it in the post to keep the Aztecs honest.

The result: The Owls led 40-33 at halftime after hitting 5-of-11 from 3-point range against a defense that had held its previous two NCAA Tournament opponents to 5-of-44 shooting from the arc.

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FAU continued to pile on the shots, upping the lead to 14 midway through the second half.

Then, as Fisher watched in the stands, the Aztecs went berserk.

With nearly every shot and pass contested, and a string of offensive rebounds, including 6 in 59 seconds, San Diego State rallied to tie the game at 65.

“They were running around, getting extra possessions,” said FAU’s Nick Boyd, who hit three early 3s and finished with 12 points. “That was really the turning point of the game.”

FAU kept San Diego State at bay for most of the second half thanks to Alijah Martin, who seemed to have an answer to every Aztec drive by scoring 19 of her 26 points in the second half.

He hit a reverse layup with 45 seconds left to put FAU up 71-68, but it wasn’t enough to end the Owls’ incredible run.

“These guys created memories and legacies that will last a lifetime,” FAU coach Dusty May.

That’s what the Aztecs did – to add another chance.


AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and nail: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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