In Sweet 16, Butler University stuns No. 1 seed Syracuse

By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; D01

SALT LAKE CITY -- From its Indiana roots to its mid-major status to its home gym, Butler has had a difficult time shaking the "Hoosiers" image. But it took another step toward changing that perception on Thursday night.

The fifth-seeded Bulldogs knocked off top-seeded Syracuse, 63-59, to reach a region final for the first time in school history.

"We can get rid of that, being a small school and surprising everybody," Butler senior Willie Veasley said. "Seeing how much success we've had in the NCAA tournament, I think that's fair to say it's a thing of the past."

The Bulldogs on Saturday (31-4) will take on second-seeded Kansas State with a Final Four spot up for grabs. The Wildcats (29-7) beat No. 6 Xavier, 101-96, in a double-overtime game in Thursday night's other West Region semifinal.

Syracuse (30-5) looked out of sorts from the start. Butler scored 23 points on 18 turnovers by the Orange even though it shot an uncharacteristically poor 25 percent from three-point range.

The game was essentially decided when Veasley hit a dramatic three-pointer that bounced high off the rim and made a tip-in on back-to-back possessions late in the game.

"At first, I was already headed down the court because I figured it was going to go over the top and I missed it," Veasley said of the three-point shot. "I looked back, it came back down and went through. Just pure excitement. Just relief that we found that shot."

The Bulldogs are more than a quaint mid-major. They have been to three Sweet 16s in the past eight years and have made four straight tournament appearances.

"There are no mid-majors in this tournament," Butler Coach Brad Stevens said. "There are just a bunch of guys playing basketball with lots of passion."

But there is still that "Hoosiers" perception surrounding Butler. The film is a re-creation of when underdog Milan High School beat Muncie Central in the final of the Indiana high school state tournament in 1954. Butler has especially strong ties to the movie because its old barn of a gym, Hinkle Fieldhouse, is where parts of the movie were filmed.

"You know what, we don't really think about that," Stevens said on Wednesday when asked about the program's image. "If people want to think that about our team, then that's okay."

Syracuse had overwhelmed its two previous opponents, but Butler opened with a 12-1 run on Thursday thanks to an active man-to-man defense.

"They're pretty aggressive and physical," Syracuse guard Andy Rautins said. "We expected that coming into the game. We just beat ourselves in the first half."

Butler grinded it out defensively and showed no quit. Ronald Nored limited Rautins, who scored 15 points before fouling out, by tirelessly chasing him around the floor. Syracuse forward Wesley Johnson led Syracuse with 17 points.

"They did a lot of front," Johnson said of Butler's up-close defensive pressure. "They just played really good defense."

Gordon Hayward, a sophomore swingman, led Butler with 17 points and Shelvin Mack added 14.

Although it struggled from outside, Butler found success against Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone, penetrating it to find soft spots in and connecting on pull-up jumpers.

With center Arinze Onuaku, the linchpin in the back of Syracuse's zone, out with a right quadriceps injury, the Orange had some difficulties. Forward Rick Jackson got into foul trouble early.

"We haven't had" Onuaku, Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. "There's nothing I'm going to say about that. We don't make excuses."

And now Butler is one win from the Final Four, which is in Indianapolis this year. The Bulldogs could be returning home, which would surely recall the "Hoosiers" story line. But after numerous appearances on the NCAA tournament stage, and after knocking off top-seeded Syracuse, Butler proved the underdog label does not necessarily apply.

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