HOUSTON — This is what magic looks like. A team of upstarts with a seed that is not imposing and from a conference that is not blue starts the time-honored march of surviving and advancing, and suddenly they can’t be stopped.
One moment, they’re storming back against the highest-ranked team in the tournament, sweeping past the favorite and its loud and large crowd. There went Alabama.
Two days later, a free throw with 1.2 seconds left to get to a first-ever Final Four. There went Creighton.
Six days after that, another epic finish on an even grander stage; a buzzer-beater that goes directly to the annual Final Four highlight reel, not to mention a likely spot in One Shining Moment Monday night. There went poor Florida Atlantic.
SDSU WINS: How the Aztecs surpassed Florida Atlantic in the Final Four
And here, left standing, the San Diego State Aztecs who will not lose, not even in places they’ve never been before.
“I think we’re meant for it,” guard Darrion Trammell was saying Saturday, sitting at his locker after a splendid Final Four game with a wondrous ending. He’s the guy who hit the free throw against Creighton, but now a week later, a teammate did the trick even later. It was Lamont Butler and his pull-up jumper at the buzzer that put a stake through the heart of Florida Atlantic 72-71. “You have to believe that, but we can’t expect it to be given to us at the same time. We have to go and earn it.”
They’ll have to earn it against a locomotive of a team Monday night. UConn led Miami (FL) by 20 points and won by 13, pretty much like all its other NCAA tournament games.
UCONN WINS: How the Huskies outran Miami (FL) to reach the national championship
But before that reality is faced, how’d the Aztecs earn it Saturday?
Here we are in the San Diego State huddle, 17 seconds left. Florida Atlantic ahead 71-70 but getting to the end of the shot clock. The Aztecs had rallied from 14 points down with a frantic effort, such as getting 10 offensive rebounds in just over two minutes.
But more was needed. Brian Dutcher looked at his team and explained the situation. They must have a defensive stand, of course. And then what, his players wondered? Get the rebound, call a timeout, plan the last-ditch play as a trip to the championship game teetered on the edge, and NRG Stadium was going bananas right up to about the fifth deck?
Senior Matt Bradley remembers Dutcher’s answer this way:
“He said no, we’re going to get a stop, we’re going to push it and we’re going to win the game.”
Dutcher would later admit he had run out of plays to call, so no reason to call a timeout after a Florida Atlantic miss. Just put the ball and the season in the hands of someone he trusted.
2023 MARCH MADNESS: Men's NCAA tournament schedule, scores, how to watch
Butler understood what had to be done.
“He told me to go downhill, get something at the rim.” It was a lot to put on one junior guard. The once-in-a-lifetime chance to play Monday night would be decided by what decision Butler made, what shot Butler took. That didn’t bother him.
“I was in the gym all my life,” he would say later. “I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
On two distant sides of the continent, they have very different reasons to remember what came next. How Butler, down to the last handful of seconds, tried to get to the rim but was cut off by the Florida Atlantic defense — “I knew I would get a shot, but I thought it would be a layup” — and how just before the clock expired and the Aztecs with it, he pulled up and took the shot of his life.
He explained how, when he looked up and saw two seconds, he knew he had to do something. Also how he had worked on that pull-up jumper all last summer, and ”I was able to get comfortable with it.”
With that, the charmed ride of San Diego State rolled on.
MORE COVERAGE: Upset tracker | How each bracket was busted | Record by conference |Latest highlights
“Who could have imagined this, but us?” Bradley asked.
Butler’s teammates weren’t surprised. He had beaten New Mexico with a three-pointer at the buzzer in February.
Only, this wasn’t February.
“This isn’t his first rodeo,” Trammell said. “As soon as it went up, we kind of knew it was going in because that’s what he does.”
Dutcher knew he was putting the matter in the hands of someone who understands how to make a shot. “Lamont Butler was the all-time leading scorer at his high school, (Riverside Poly), and Reggie Miller played there,” Dutcher said. “So I don’t need to tell you that he can put it in the basket.
“To make that shot was incredible. I can’t wait to go back and see it on tape.”
The Florida Atlantic Owls can certainly wait to see it again.
“The hardest part is, there’s no next,” coach Dusty May said.
Nick Boyd, who beat Memphis in the final seconds in the first round, told how “I was in shock when the buzzer went off. But it’s the game of basketball. We had our fun when we did that (against) Memphis.”
So San Diego State has another finish to treasure, and the Aztecs understand that. “This is something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives,” Trammell said. “When we’re at each other’s weddings and when we’re done with all this, were going to come back and remember that moment.”
But he added something else.
“We can’t lose sight of what we’re trying to do. We’re doing this for our families, we’re doing this for ourselves, we’re doing it for the respect we deserve.”
They are the No. 5 seed from the Mountain West, and neither of those descriptions ever described a national champion. But the doubters must be getting scarce, given the way they’ve been winning their games. Mid-major? What mid-major? “This is the proof in the pudding,” Keshad Johnson said. “What are they going to say now?”
There is something undeniably steely about the way the Aztecs won’t budge. Such as the way they went after the offensive rebounds in the second half when the day seemed to be slipping away from them.
“That’s the kind of guys we have,” forward Aguek Arop said. “A lot of us have been in life circumstances where you could think we were down and out. But we always come back.”
Only one game to go. The problem is, it’s against UConn.