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Butler rekindles NCAA hope in America's heartland

The little team that could just might outdo itself this season.

Butler is beating up on college basketball's big boys, taking down No. 1 seeds, booking tickets for big-city destinations and winning the hearts and minds of college basketball fans with a long NCAA tournament run. Again.

Yes, America's darlings are back to their old selves thanks to some buzzer-beating tricks.

"It's funny because a month and a half ago, everybody was saying we lost every close game," coach Brad Stevens said Sunday afternoon after returning to Indy.

Try finding those critics now.

After beating ninth-seeded Old Dominion on Matt Howard's last-second tip-in Thursday, the Bulldogs (25-9) upset top-seeded Pittsburgh in one of the wackiest finishes in tourney history Saturday.

Butler's Andrew Smith gave Butler the lead — and presumably the victory — by putting in a wide-open layup with 2.2 seconds to go. Then Shelvin Mack inexplicably ran into Pitt's Gilbert Brown as Brown tried a half-court desperation heave. Brown made the first free throw to tie the score at 70 but missed the second, and Howard grabbed the rebound only to be fouled even more inexplicably by Nasir Robinson with 0.8 seconds left.

Howard made the first shot and intentionally missed the second to end the game and send Butler into its third regional semifinal appearance in five years.

Less than 24 hours later, the senior forward was still shaking his head.

"I'm the one that people like to get on for making fouls 90 feet from the basket," Howard said. "But I can't imagine what was going through his (Robinson's) mind. Maybe he thought they were still down instead of tied, I don't know."

What the Bulldogs do know is that after spending an entire season trying to distance themselves from last season's runner-up finish, they're right back where they started.

Their reliance on old-school basketball principles — teamwork, effort and precision — have not only brought them success and fame but continue to expand their following among blue-collar basketball fans. The media horde is expected to start swirling on campus again Monday, where they're almost certain to be asked about the comparisons to last year and regaining their moniker as America's Team.

The bookies still don't buy it, which only exacerbates the image and adds to the legions of fans who root for underdogs like Butler.

"Nobody's going to pick us to beat Wisconsin, and nobody picked us to beat Old Dominion or Pitt, either," Stevens said. "You know (point guard) Ronald Nored came up to me and said, 'Coach, I've played in 10 NCAA games and nobody has ever picked us to win.'"

Actually, Thursday's game in New Orleans against the fourth-seeded Badgers will be Nored's 10th tourney game. So far he's 7-2.

Not bad for the team that was supposed to go out in the first round each of the last two years. Or for a team that some wrote off during a three-game losing streak, the longest of Howard's career, in late January and early February.

But as Horizon League foes know better than anyone, counting out the Bulldogs comes with a price.

Butler responded from that skid with seven straight wins to clinch a share of its fifth consecutive regular-season title. The Bulldogs won two more games in the conference tourney to earn the league's automatic bid, the only way they could assure themselves of making the 68-team field. And now they have added two more improbable NCAA tourney victories to their resume, leaving them just two wins short of — get this — a second straight Final Four appearance.

"It feels pretty good, just knowing we have another opportunity," said Mack, who called his foul the dumbest in Butler history. "There's a lot of relief because I put myself in a bad situation. I'm just really thankful it worked out."

Butler is only the second team in tourney history to play four consecutive games decided by one or two points. The lone loss in that span came when Gordon Hayward's half-court shot bounced off the rim in last year's title game, giving Duke its fourth national championship.

And the Bulldogs are just the third team in tourney history to knock off No. 1 seeds in consecutive years before reaching the Final Four. They join UCLA (2006 and 2007) and Duke (1988, 1989 and 1990), schools that have combined for 15 national titles, in that elite club.

Back on campus, dozens of fans braved the cold, windy conditions to chant "Are you a Bulldog?" when players stepped off the team bus Sunday afternoon, a celebration players embraced.

But to them, it's only the start.

"It's exciting and a lot of us have been here before, so we know what to expect and we have to show the freshmen the ropes," senior guard Zach Hahn said. "But this is what you play for, and you never want it to end."