Lamont Butler hit a jump shot at the buzzer, sending San Diego State to its first national championship game with a 72-71 win over fellow mid-major Florida Atlantic in the Final Four on Saturday night.
The No. 5 seed Aztecs (32-6) appeared to be in trouble as the free-flowing Owls (35-4) picked them apart while building a 14-point second-half lead.
San Diego State got back in it, as it always does, with defense.
The Aztecs shut down No. 9 seed FAU and pulled within one when Jaedon LeDee hit a short jumper with 36 seconds left. After FAU’s Johnell Davis missed a contested layup, the Aztecs didn’t call timeout and got the ball to Butler.
The clock ticking down, Butler dribbled to the baseline, found that cut off and circled back. He stepped back to create a little room and hit a jumper that sent the Aztecs racing out onto the floor — and into Monday’s championship game, where they will face No. 4 seed UConn, who easily handled fifth-seeded Miami later Saturday night in a 72-59 win.
“The plan was just to get downhill,” Butler said after the game. “They cut me off a little bit. I looked up and there was two seconds left, so I got to a shot that I’m comfortable with, and I hit it. I’m happy.”
The Aztecs had one timeout left when they got the ball on that final possession, but head coach Brian Dutcher said he had “ran out of plays, so I decided not to take a timeout.”
San Diego State’s 14-point second-half comeback was the third-largest in Final Four history, according to CBS Sports.
San Diego State’s defense has played a key role in its run to the final. It clamped down on four straight opponents to open the NCAA Tournament.
The Aztecs had no answer for the swaggy Owls in the first half, allowing them to hit 5 of 11 from 3-point range to build a 40-33 halftime lead.
FAU stretched the lead to 14 midway through the second half.
Then the Aztecs got gritty.
Contesting nearly every shot and pass while pulling down a string of offensive rebounds, San Diego State rallied into a tie at 65. Matt Bradley led the offense in the second half and finished with 21 points after struggling with his shot in the previous three games.
Alijah Martin kept FAU in it, scoring 19 of his 26 points in the second half, seeming to have an answer for every Aztecs move.
He didn’t get a chance for a final one.
Come Monday, meanwhile, UConn (30-8) will be vying for its fifth national title since 1999, but first since Dan Hurley was hired to bring back the program after its fall from grace.
For San Diego State, it will be the culmination of the program building Steve Fisher started and his longtime former assistant Dutcher pushed forward.