Butler Way produces story line we won’t soon forget

Sometimes, the stage gets too big. The lights become too bright.

The pressure weighs too heavily.

Butler basketball was built on the belief that in such times of stress, you rely on the principles that define your program.

For the Bulldogs, you really do get stubborn.

You gut it out.

For this, an academic-rich university that sits on 290 acres of a beautiful park-like setting with an enrollment of 4,200 will play for the national championship Monday six miles from its campus against Duke.

What a story line. If this is how the NCAA Tournament as we know it will end with expansion in sight, could you imagine a better scenario than the team America has fallen in love with against the team much of it loves to hate?

It wasn’t easy for Butler to get there.

It was ugly. It was pickup ball at lunchtime. It was bloody lips and bruised heads and leg cramps. It’s a wonder they didn’t shoot free throws to choose sides.

But as much as Butler did to nearly lose the first Final Four game in school history, it did just enough to win and keep alive one of the most memorable stories in the game’s history.

The Bulldogs beat Michigan State 52-50 before 71,298 at Lucas Oil Stadium, beat the Spartans despite shooting 31 percent and suffering through a second-half stretch of nearly 11 minutes without a basket.

You have heard of it, no doubt. The Butler Way.

You don’t hold five straight NCAA Tournament opponents to less than 60 points — the first team to do so in the shot-clock era — without being whack-you-in-the-teeth tough when absolutely nothing you put up is falling.

It’s as if when Butler starters are introduced before games and run over to touch the head of their pint-sized but thick mascot, they assume the characteristics of the critter with the hanging skin and drooping lips.

This didn’t just happen. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the Butler team we have watched place itself 40 minutes from the sort of stature not thought possible for a program that battles the Cleveland States and Wisconsin-Milwaukees and Valparaisos twice a year.

It’s not even the Horizon Conference. It’s the Horizon League. Does every player receive a participation trophy at season’s end? Are you allowed to put a sponsor’s name on the jerseys? Is it possible you might see Uncle Al’s Body Shop slapped across the back of some player from Wright State?

The thing about a midmajor label is that it’s all about money and power. Those with the most are considered major players. Those with the least aren’t.

Butler has changed all that the last three weeks with The Way. It embodies the ideals of humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Coaches and players have changed at Butler the last decade, but the secret to success hasn’t.

The Bulldogs needed all those traits and more Saturday, missing 10 straight second-half shots, being outrebounded, making just 5 of 21 3-pointers, scoring only eight points in the final 12:18.

“You know, we’ve talked about it a little bit last week,” coach Brad Stevens said. “We might not have believed it when we said it, you know, in our first team meeting in the fall, but if we focus and do our jobs, then why can’t we play for a national championship? That’s been our focus all along.

“I walked out of that room and I kind of thought, ‘I hope we’ll get a chance to do this.’ One of our managers was filming practice and actually said over the intercom, ‘Hey, somebody picked us to go to the Final Four. We’re good, but we’re not that good.’ And you could hear it.

“I was watching film and I could hear him say it. It was pretty good. Maybe they didn’t all believe me. But, you know, enough of them did.

“Hey, we’re here.”

The stage doesn’t get any bigger than it will be Monday evening. The lights don’t shine any brighter. The pressure will have never been heavier on the little school with the beautiful campus and terrific basketball team that has won 25 straight.

I don’t know if The Way has another 40 minutes in it. It’s as if you are too afraid to really think it possible.

Butler against Duke for the national championship.

Are you kidding me?

What a story line.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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