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March magic pushes San Diego State into national title game

HOUSTON — The magic of March.

This is the move junior guard Lamont Butler practiced all summer, the one he uses most when playing teammates one-on-one, the one he most desires in the closing minutes of a pretend game when alone in a gym late at night.

He went right and took two dribbles left. He rose up from around 14 feet, history on his fingertips, a spot in the national championship game on his release, utter jubilation as ball found net.

A team from the Mountain West will play for a national title after San Diego State stunned Florida Atlantic 72-71 on Saturday at NRG Stadium.

“I found,” Butler said, “a shot I’m comfortable with.”

Butler’s make was San Diego State’s first lead of the second half … with 0.0 on the clock.

And so the Aztecs continue their improbable NCAA Tournament run and have climbed within 40 minutes of cutting down the most significant of nets come Monday night.

A gut instinct

This is also why Brian Dutcher can coach, because in the most stressful of moments, in the heights of nervousness, his gut instincts lead him.

And sometimes, they create the most amazing of moments.

“March is for players,” said Dutcher, who inherited San Diego State’s head coaching job six years ago upon the retirement of Steve Fisher. “They’re the ones who make coaches look good.”

He’s looking pretty smart right now.

He trusts his team. He should.

Dutcher, the Aztecs down one, chose not to call a timeout when San Diego State regained possession and Butler first touched the ball with 7.5 seconds remaining.

Nine dribbles later … jubilation.

“We had enough time to get down the floor and attack,” Dutcher said. “It was just a feel. Sometimes, a broken floor is the best way to get down court. I told myself I was not going to call timeout.”

So much for the suggestion that mid-major schools can’t create the sort of excitement most demand from a season’s final weekend. So much for those who only desire a host of blue bloods running up and down a Final Four court.

San Diego State trailed by 14 in the second half. It was 4-of-12 from the free-throw line over the final seven minutes but had nine offensive rebounds during that span. It had six in under a minute at one point. Six.

The Aztecs kept working. Kept crashing the boards. Kept hope alive.

This is what you get when seven seniors exist among your top nine players, those who have seen every in-game situation one can imagine. Kids who have played together for two, three, four and sometimes five years.

It’s not your everyday story of college basketball in 2023.

And that final shot not your everyday game-ender.

“Lamont is an incredible young man,” Dutcher said. “He’s a really good person and a really good basketball player.”

He was supposed to get downhill and to the rim. Supposed to drive the ball hard right and have teammates crash away for a follow in case he missed.

But then Butler was cut off on the baseline and had to improvise.

He made that move to his left and rose up and released the ball with 0.6 seconds remaining. And it went in.

And the Mountain West will be represented for the first time in a season’s final game.

“I think it will sink in when this is all over,” Butler said. “Right now, we’re playing for a national championship. A really surreal moment. But it’s not time for reflection. Can never get too high or too low. Just have to go play.”

Trusting his guys

It was the second buzzer-beater of the season for Butler, who beat New Mexico in Albuquerque earlier with a deep 3-pointer. Dutcher’s gut told him to call timeout and set a play that night.

I’m thinking this shot was a tad more important.

And as ball found net and the San Diego State bench erupted and rushed the court to mob Butler, a certain coach merely stood in place and shook his head and smiled.

March is for players.

Brian Dutcher trusted his to come through.

Man, did they ever.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter

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