Bulldogs again find their will to win

NEW ORLEANS -- The familiar refrain after Gordon Hayward’s missed half-court shot in last year’s national championship loss to Duke was this: What if the shot had gone down?

Hayward would have been an iconic figure in the sport, owner of the most dramatic basket in the history of the NCAA tournament.

Over the past year, the follow-up question would have been: How much would it have changed the sport if a team from the Horizon League had won the national championship by beating a Hall of Fame coach and a team from basketball royalty?

Well, the shot didn’t go in. Duke won. Hayward is in the NBA. But Butler still changed the sport.

The Bulldogs paved a path to get back by developing a will that once again propelled them throughout this tournament.

Butler is back in the Final Four after imposing its will in a 74-71 overtime win over Florida on Saturday afternoon.

“Last year in Salt Lake [site of the 2010 West Regional], it was almost like a ride you never dreamed of being on and we relished every moment,’’ said coach Brad Stevens, who is 10-3 in the NCAA tournament in just four short seasons as Butler's coach. “But this team has been so businesslike.’’

Butler had to earn this trip more so than a year ago, when it won 24 straight games going into the Final Four. The Bulldogs lost three straight in the middle of conference play, even falling to lowly Youngstown State on the road. Butler lost five league games, ended in a three-way tie for first and had to win the conference tournament title on the road at Milwaukee.

“There was turmoil that we had to go through after falling pretty down in January and early February,’’ said Butler junior guard Ronald Nored. “We had to earn this. It was tougher than last year.’’

Against No. 9 seed Old Dominion, Butler had to win on a last-second layup by Matt Howard. An inexplicable foul at the end of the second half allowed the Bulldogs to barely eke past top-seeded Pitt.

“We were lucky to beat Old Dominion,’’ Stevens said. “They could be sitting here. Pittsburgh could be sitting here. There’s no doubt that they were great teams. That’s the tournament. It doesn’t matter how you win, you just try to play the next one and hope you get a chance to play the next one.’’

The Florida game Saturday couldn’t have gone worse for Butler early on. The Gators sprinkled in a zone with their man defense and it perplexed Butler. Florida built an 11-point lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the game and the Gators looked the part of the more experienced NCAA team, en route to its fourth Final Four under Billy Donovan.

“We got them to take shots out of character for them,’’ Donovan said. “But then they found a way to come down and get another possession. The difference in the game was those 50-50 balls in the last 10 minutes of regulation.’’

They’re called winning plays. Butler has made them for the past few years under Stevens, and to some extent long before that under Barry Collier, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter. Over the past decade and more, those coaches have made this one of the most consistent programs in the country.

“When you get to this point in the season, and I had this with [Joakim] Noah, [Al] Horford and [Corey] Brewer and those guys, there is an internal will and I thought then that our internal will was terrific,’’ Donovan said of the Gators' consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007. “I thought [Butler's] internal will, coming down with those loose balls, being quicker in reacting, they just got it. They made plays. Their will at that point in time and their refusal to be denied speaks to something. I thought it stood out. I thought our guys were terrific in that, but maybe not as good as they were.’’

The Bulldogs chipped away at that 11-point lead with plays like the gritty layup from Howard on a putback, a 3-pointer from seldom-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins -- who had played in only 18 previous games and didn’t play against ODU or Pitt -- and a 3-pointer by Shawn Vanzant. The play inside late and the rebounds Butler pulled down after being dominated all game by Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin turned out to be the difference. After being outscored 32-14 in the paint at the point of their 11-point deficit, the Bulldogs went on to outscore UF 14-4 down low the rest of the way. Oh, and don't forget the fouls Nored and Shelvin Mack drew.

“What defines this Butler group was the unselfishness of Ron Nored not starting after starting during the national championship game and guarding [Ervin] Walker as tough as he possibly could and Shawn Vanzant tipping plays and Khyle Marshall and our young guys starting to figure this out,’’ Stevens said.

The Bulldogs head to Houston not as underdogs, but as established members of an elite class. Michigan State went to consecutive Final Fours in 2009 and '10. Florida did it in 2006 and '07. The last mid-major school to make consecutive appearances was UNLV in 1990 and '91.

“I know this: Somebody is going to have to beat us because of our will,’’ Stevens said.

If Hayward’s shot had gone down, Butler would forever be known as the underdog that pulled off the impossible and won a title. Now that the Bulldogs are back on the sport’s greatest stage, the headlines should read differently.

This program, this team, this school, belongs here now. Butler has earned it.