HOUSTON — Only a few months before the euphoria of the shot that halted Florida Atlantic’s improbable run and sent San Diego State to the national title game, Lamont Butler experienced a moment of spirit-crushing devastation.
One moment, San Diego State had a seemingly insurmountable four-point lead over the nation’s ninth-ranked team at the Maui Invitational. Then Butler committed an inadvertent foul and a costly turnover in the span of six seconds to fuel a last-gasp Arkansas comeback.
“People don’t understand how hard Lamont took that loss,” his father Lamont Butler Sr. said. “He didn’t show it on the outside but he felt he let the team down.”
While teammates and coaches wrapped their arms around Butler and assured him that they did not blame him, it was a message from his father that eventually snapped the junior guard out of his depression. Lamont Sr. told his son that he can’t let six seconds define who he is. Later in the season, the family even had T-shirts printed bearing the slogan.
Just as the elder Butler predicted, six seconds won’t define his son. Nine seconds will. That’s how much time was left in Saturday night’s national semifinal when San Diego State forced a miss from Florida Atlantic’s Johnell Davis to keep its deficit at one.
After receiving an outlet pass, Butler then zoomed up the right side of the floor, drove baseline and found his path blocked. Then he paused, took a dribble to the left and created the slightest bit of separation, enough for him to pull up from 15 feet with time about to expire and a spot in Monday night’s national title game hanging in the balance.
“They did a good job cutting me off,” Butler said. “Once I looked up, it was 2 seconds left. I knew I had to make a shot.”
Butler said he was “a little shocked” when the shot when in, that it didn’t immediately “sink in” what he had done. That wasn’t the case for his teammates who charged around the NRG Stadium court, jumped on each other’s backs and lifted Butler in the air.
While Florida Atlantic’s run from small-conference obscurity to the Final Four captured the nation’s imagination the past three weeks, San Diego State playing on the first Monday night in April is also unfathomable. This is a program that never won an NCAA tournament game in program history before Steve Fisher took over and was coming off a dismal stretch of 13 losing seasons in 14 years.
Fisher and his righthand man, Brian Dutcher, gradually built San Diego State into one of the West’s finest programs by emphasizing smothering defense and by finding recruits with a chip on their shoulder. Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay and Malcolm Thomas elevated San Diego State into the national spotlight in 2011. Jamaal Franklin, Xavier Thames and Malachi Flynn ensured the Aztecs stayed relevant.
Now the Aztecs are in April, uncharted territory for a program that had never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 before this season. They rallied from a nine-point deficit to stun Alabama in the Sweet 16. They trailed by as many as seven in the second half against Creighton in the Elite Eight. And they erased a 14-point second-half deficit against an FAU team that was carving up their vaunted defense on Saturday night.
“It’s funny the belief we have,” assistant coach David Velasquez said. “You can just feel it. There’s just a belief with this group that we’re going to be OK.”
The biggest decision San Diego State’s coaches had came with 36.2 seconds to go in the second half and Florida Atlantic holding the ball and a one-point lead. The Aztecs had to decide whether to purposely foul and extend the game or defend straight up and hope enough time remained to generate a good look at a game winner.
“We were going back and forth on it,” Velasquez said. “Should we foul? Should we not foul?”
They almost fouled. That was the plan if FAU kept in center Vladislav Goldin, a 60.6% foul shooter who had missed four of five free throws on Saturday. Then, at the last minute, Dusty May subbed out Goldin and “that kind of changed our situation,” Velasquez said.
What was an easier decision for San Diego State was how to handle it after Nathan Mensah forced Davis into missing at the rim.
There was no doubt they were putting the ball in the hands of Butler, their best downhill player and a player who had already hit a previous game winner this season at New Mexico. And there was no doubt about whether to call timeout to try to set up a final play.
“We don’t ever call a timeout in that situation,” Velasquez said. “It goes back to Coach Fisher’s days. We’ve just always believed that transition is harder for them to match up with you.”
The validation for that came seconds later when Butler pulled up and hit a shot that will forever be part of March lore. It was a moment of elation and redemption for a player who a few months earlier was inconsolable after letting his team down.
“All the work Lamont put in, and this is what you live for — to be able to hit a game-winning shot to take your team to a championship game,” Lamont Butler Sr. said. “We couldn’t have scripted it better.”