INDIANAPOLIS – Draymond Green had the ball, the game, the whole thing in his hands. He also had Gordon Hayward defending him. He leaned in, went up and in this collision was the story of the night. Butler’s defense against Michigan State’s offense. Butler’s star against MSU’s heartbeat.
The bodies met, and for what seemed like the first time all night, the referees kept their whistles dry and unused. Green’s shot fell way short, Butler recovered, and moments later, Green fouled, he left the court, and the Spartans would soon follow.
Butler did it. The team whose conference had never been to a Final Four took out a team that had been here six times in the last dozen years. History will call that an upset, even though the talent scouts and the oddsmakers didn’t see it that way before the game. Butler was known for its defense, MSU known for its rebounding, depth and experience.
The defense proved to be more impressive.
Scoring 20 points off MSU’s 16 turnovers, Butler continually confounded the MSU rhythm. How important was the Butler defense? The Bulldogs shot just over 30% for the night – and still won! They were everywhere. And on that last chance play, the Spartans trailing, 50-49, no whistle sounded.
And soon the buzzer did.
As they walked off the court, Raymar Morgan had the look of a guy who walked into a rainstorm, opened a broken umbrella and got splashed by a bus. It wasn’t that other days wouldn’t be better, it was that this day was just Â miserable. And so it was for the rest of the Spartans, on a night when the lightning struck in the form of their hungry opponent, and the green dreams were soundly doused.
No one suffered this more than Morgan, a major heartbeat of the MSU team, who saw his third foul called less than halfway through the first half. His pained face on the bench – along with Kalin Lucas on crutches, all kinds of weird sub rotations, and an angry Tom Izzo painted the portrait of this frustrating night.
I know the score read that Michigan State lost this game, 52-50. But part of me is still waiting for the Spartans to show up.
The first half started promisingly for MSU, with Korrie Lucious hitting two smooth three-pointers. Green caught fire, scored from outside and inside – and blocked several shots – and the early read was that Butler couldn’t bang and run with MSU all night.
But that was an early read. Once referees get involved in basketball, things change. And whistles blew and cast members were suddenly shuffling in and out like some Broadway musical. When Morgan drew his third foul, MSU became a team in search of a rhythm. Five bench players would get at least five minutes of action. Durrell Summers was not his usual explosive self. And there weren’t a lot of offensive rebounds, an MSU signature.
The first half ended, 28-28.
But the second half was where this story would be told. And Butler turned up the heat.
Suddenly, it seemed as if there were Butler hands everywhere, disrupting passing lanes, poking the ball, stealing it. And whenever they stole the ball, they seemed to turn it into points. Butler drew fouls and, unlike MSU, made their shots. After Willie Veasley took a steal and jammed it – causing the home town fans to explode – it was 44-37, and Butler had matched the Spartans’ biggest lead of the night, and seemed destined for more.
Give credit for MSU coming back. For a bit it looked like the Spartans would never be close again (or even hit another basket.)
In the end, MSU has to begrudgingly respect Butler. The Bulldogs harassed them into a 50-point night. The Bulldogs poked and prodded and stole. The Bulldogs did it the rough and ugly way – which is often the way MSU gets it done.
In the end, it was a play that matched all that MSU was about against all that Butler was about. No whistle. No win.
Butler did it.
MSU will be thinking about it for a long time.