HOUSTON (AP) — San Diego State’s defense played well in the second half as Florida Atlantic moved to a free-flowing 14-point lead.
The Aztecs found their teeth back in the game. Then Lamont Butler delivered at the very end.
Butler beat the Bombers for the ages, sending San Diego State to its first national championship game with a 72-71 win over Central Florida Atlantic in the last four on Saturday night.
“I didn’t know how big it was,” Butler said after his calm reaction one of the greatest blows executed in the history of games, the Knight’s Game. “We have to go to the national championship for us. That not many people do.”
A diabolical defense pushed San Diego State (32-6) to the final stop of the playoffs. The Aztecs beat and harassed their opponents all season to create the first all-around major national semifinal with VCU and Butler in 2011.
Swaggy Nights (35-4) seemed to have solved San Diego State’s pitching, using constant movement and ball turnovers to create winning mismatches.
San Diego State found its defensive mojo midway through the half, roaring into the night as it cut its lead to one on Jaedon LeDee’s jumper with 36 seconds left.
When FAU’s Johnell Davis missed a penalty kick, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher opted to call a timeout, joking that he didn’t have any plays left.
All they had to do was get the ball to Butler.
With the clock running down, Butler’s run to the base was found to be cut off and rounded back. He retired to create a room and sent a woolen shirt which he sent running on the floor and had San Diego Padres fans I want to go to the Wild Park.
Butler won the first buzzer-beater for the Final Four by Jalen Suggs for Gonzaga against UCLA in 2021 and No. 5 overall. But there is only one when the winning team is drawing in the shooting season.
Next up for the Mountain West’s first Final Four team is a chance to win the conference’s first national title Monday night against UConn or Miami.
“It’s always added,” said San Diego’s Matt Bradley, who had 21 points after struggling in the previous three games. “But the most important thing is always to come back and keep fighting.”
San Diego State had been building toward this since coach Brian Dutcher took over for his season mentor Steve Fisher. The Dutchman had followed Fisher’s form by adding a dose of dirty defense.
The Aztecs lost their chance, when instead of the 1 seed no. In 2020, the Equestrian Games were set to take place, only to have them canceled by the pandemic.
San Diego State followed up with a pair of NCAA Tournament first round sweepers with a solid 2023 season, winning 27 games to earn a No. 5 seed in this year’s Eastern Conference bracket.
Once the NCAA Tournament Champion, the Aztecs have ramped up 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 through quick ball movements, with occasional dumps on the runner to keep the Aztecs honest.
The result: The Owls led 40-33 at halftime after going 5 of 11 from 3-point range against a defense that held its previous two NCAA Tournament opponents to 5-of-44 shooting from the arc.
FAU was making hits, extending the lead to 14 at halftime.
Then, as the Fisherman stood watching, the Aztecs got stoned.
Contesting nearly every shot and pass with a string of foul shots, including six in 59 seconds, San Diego State was reduced to all 65 points.
“They went on a run, getting extra possessions,” said FAU’s Nick Boyd, who hit three early 3s and finished with 12 points. “That’s really the goal of the game.”
FAU kept San Diego State at bay thanks mostly to center Alijah Martin, who seemed to have an answer for every Aztec move by scoring 19 of his 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 stop Howler’s improbable run to the end.
“These guys created a memory and a legacy that will last a lifetime,” FAU coach Dusty May.
So the Aztecs – one case to add.
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