We’ve seen Butler pull of upsets time and time again under Brad Stevens, to a point where it’s almost expected of them.
But Saturday’s thrilling win over #1 Indiana was different, and it was one of Stevens’ finest moments during his tenure at the helm of the Bulldogs.
And in Maui, the Bulldogs showed that they were making it back to to the level that they had been at during their two memorable runs through the NCAA tourney.
After beating Marquette on Rotnei Clarke’s ridiculous buzzer-beater, Butler managed to dominate then-#9 North Carolina to advance to the championship game. Once there, they were crushed by Illinois, and the Bulldogs looked more like the team that was given a beating by Xavier during ESPN’s season-opening 24 hours of college basketball.
So while they beat North Carolina, we weren’t sure where exactly Butler was at, especially considering that the Tar Heels were ranked much higher than they should have been to begin with. The real test would come in the form of their in-state rival, the #1 Indiana Hoosiers.
Going into this game, I thought that Butler could put up a fight, but I just didn’t know if they had enough to take down the nation’s top-ranked team.
But this game, part of the Crossroads Classic, was far and away the peak moment of the college basketball season so far, and it will be hard for anything that’s not in March to top it. The game was pretty close throughout, with both teams only getting their leads to 7 at their highest, setting up for a truly epic final 9 minutes of regulation.
Butler would claw their way back and finally, after not leading for over 20 minutes, freshman Kellen Dunham hit a cold-blooded 3 to give the Bulldogs the lead with under 6 minutes left in the 2nd half.
They would manage to extend their lead to 7, but the Hoosiers were far from done.
Indiana would slowly chip away at the lead, and finally would tie it up on a 3-pointer from Yogi Ferrell with 10 seconds left to send the game into OT.
Heading into overtime, Butler was without two of its most important players, Roosevelt Jones and Andrew Smith. Plus, Cody Zeller was starting to get rolling and Indiana had grabbed the momentum. All signs pointed to the Hoosiers managing to escape Bankers Life Fieldhouse with their undefeated record intact.
But if we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs don’t really give a damn what kind of odds are stacked against them.
So back and forth the 2 teams went for the first couple minutes of OT, until Zeller was able to hit a jumper to give Indiana a 4-point lead with 2 minutes and change left in the game. I’ve seen Butler many times before pull of the unthinkable, but once Zeller hit that shot, I thought that was going to be it. I even posted on Twitter that the shot was potentially the dagger in Butler’s upset bid.
After Rotnei Clarke hit one from beyond the arc to cut the lead to one, the Bulldogs forced a turnover, allowing for Chase Stigall to drain yet another deep ball for Butler, this one giving them a 2-point advantage.
But the Hoosiers would keep on fighting, and Zeller would tie the game up with over 20 seconds left, setting the stage for perhaps the biggest shot in Butler Bulldogs history.
The Bulldogs would run the clock down and Alex Barlow, a sophomore who made only 1 shot all of last year, would drive into the lane and pull up for a short jumper. The ball would spin around the rim for a moment, and dropped through the net with 2.4 seconds left, sending the Butler bench and the Fieldhouse into a frenzy.
Indiana would have one last chance to win the game, but a desperation heave from about halfcourt by Jordan Hulls would miss wide left, giving Butler its 1st win over a top-ranked opponent in school history.
I have seen very few games where an underdog team persevered like the Bulldogs did against Indiana.
Butler didn’t worry when they were down in the 2nd half; they came back, took the lead, and managed to take their lead to 7. Then the Hoosiers mounted a comeback of their own, hitting a deflating 3 with 10 seconds left to force OT.
A lot of times when the favored team hits a shot like that to send it to overtime, they go on to finish the job. And when 2 of the underdog’s biggest playmakers have fouled out, there just seems to be no way they can get the win. But Butler would match the Hoosiers shot for shot, bringing it down to the wire again, where a complete unknown would become the hero.
And how does Butler manage to defy the odds yet again? Two words: Brad Stevens.
His teams always seem to follow his demeanor, always cool and collected, never hitting the panic button under any circumstances.
And the fact that Alex Barlow hit the game-winner is so appropriate. Butler is this underdog team that everyone and America can get behind. They’re David beating Goliath, time after time after time. They’re a team where its unknowns are just as likely to hit a game-winner as its stars, just like Barlow did today.
Last year when Christian Watford hit the game-winning 3 as time expired in Indiana’s stunning upset of #1 Kentucky, I thought that would be the greatest December game of college basketball I would ever see. Dan Shulman’s call was epic, Dickie V was going nuts, Assembly Hall was in bedlam, Tom Crean had the most epic expression on his face I’ve ever seen after a win of its magnitude. And above all else, it can be looked back upon years from now as the moment that officially decreed that Indiana basketball was truly back.
I don’t want to say that the Butler-Indiana game was as great a game as the Hoosiers’ victory last December.
That being said, it certainly gave it a run for its money.