HOUSTON — Amid the mayhem, Lamont Butler moved at a casual pace. It seemed too leisurely. As the San Diego State guard weaved through traffic in the game’s final nine seconds, you couldn’t be certain whether he was looking for a shot or a concession item.
The Aztecs, accustomed to winning through force, advanced to the national championship game in the most skillful way. This 72-71 victory Saturday night over the Owls — who looked like the better team for 90 percent of this game — asked more of them offensively than they are used to giving. Contrary to perception, they had the firepower to rally from down 14 points in the final 14 minutes and steal the most important game in program history at the buzzer.
“It’s unbelievable,” Butler said afterward, admitting he was still in shock.
Said teammate Darrion Trammell: “When we are at each other’s weddings and we’re done with all this, we’re going to come back and remember that moment.”
The Aztecs aren’t built to come back. They aren’t built to win games when the opponent is draining three-pointers and driving through their vaunted defense. They aren’t built, with all that muscle and strength, to allow teams to power through them. So they had to win with their off hand this time, and in doing so, they showed a fresh layer. They broadened their identity. When we talk about toughness, the description isn’t limited to playing a physical style. It’s about competing and figuring out how to excel when things are hard. It’s about being resourceful.
To reach Championship Monday for the first time, San Diego State outlasted the difficulty, winning despite having the lead for only 6½ of the 40 minutes. When Florida Atlantic took a 54-40 lead that felt more like 64-40 because the Aztecs were struggling offensively, the team cobbled together all the defensive might and offensive execution it could find to make the fifth-largest comeback in men’s Final Four history.
Matt Bradley, who scored 21 points, attacked the rim. Jaedon LeDee came off the bench and made tough baskets in the paint, scoring nine of his 12 points after halftime. Aguek Arop made plays seemingly out of nowhere.
For the entire second half, the Aztecs nibbled at the deficit. At the end, they were close enough to pray for one defensive stop, which would get them one last shot at victory. After a Florida Atlantic timeout with 17 seconds remaining, Owls guard Johnell Davis missed a driving layup. Aztecs forward Nathan Mensah rebounded it with nine seconds left, and then Butler took control.
No timeout. Coach Brian Dutcher didn’t want it. He trusted his guys to play it through to the end.
“I ran out of plays,” Dutcher said. “So I decided not to take a timeout."
Butler knew what to do.
“Lamont said, ‘If we get the rebound, let’s get downhill, send all three bigs to the rim,’ ” the coach said. “He got downhill and made the play.”
In the first half, the meager pregame expectations for offense turned out to be unwarranted. With San Diego State’s relentless defense and Florida Atlantic’s shape-shifting ability to win however necessary, there was concern about a rock fight — a lumbering and ragged game that would seem as if it were being played in concrete sneakers. Instead, the Owls and Aztecs used their Final Four debuts to showcase their versatility, speed and playmaking.
The rhythm and pace were astounding from the start. It wasn’t just that the Aztecs couldn’t slow down the game. They didn’t want to want to, attacking early with Bradley finally finding his shooting stroke. Stylish basketball ensued. Both teams committed only three turnovers apiece in the first half. They combined to make 11 of 25 three-pointers by halftime. Overall, Florida Atlantic shot 53.6 percent early, which seemed impossible with the way San Diego State defended most of this season.
The Owls led 40-33 at the break, and they did it their way, playing with freedom and attacking from every spot on the court. Their depth made an impact. Nine Owls played at least seven minutes. All of them scored. Five of them recorded between four and nine points. When Giancarlo Rosado started dancing in the paint and putting on a post-move exhibition, Florida Atlantic built its biggest lead at 38-28 late in the first half.
When asked about Florida Atlantic on Friday, Arop talked like most have during the Owls’ run.
“I didn’t know anything about them before,” Arop said, “but I do now.”
This has been a chaotic NCAA men’s tournament, but know this: As the Owls proved, they are not chaos agents. They’re just prolific winners, period. At 35-4, FAU was the winningest Division I team this season, and you don’t have to watch the Owls for long to understand why. They were not Cinderella. They were unknown and underappreciated as a No. 9 seed, and they made that resoundingly clearly. The chaos in this tournament happened around them, but they were a worthy team that navigated the drama perfectly and made history.
Alijah Martin, a powerful 6-foot-2 guard, was the best player on the court, finishing with 26 points and seven rebounds. Florida Atlantic was balanced and deep, and it was close to running away with this game. But San Diego State limited the Owls to 33 percent shooting in the second half, and one stop at a time, the Aztecs got back into the game.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” FAU guard Nick Boyd said. “I’m not dwelling on it much. I’m ready to get back to work. I’m happy for our team. I mean, we put FAU on the map. That’s most important to me. When I came to this school and I committed here, I said this is what we’re going to do.
“And we took it to a new height. All I can do is smile and be appreciative of the run we went on and know next year you’re going to hear it from FAU again. You’re going to see us in the same position, and it’s going to be a different outcome, I promise you.”
For now, though, Florida Atlantic must live with the heartbreak. Butler did it, nice and casual, never rattled.
During the postgame celebration on the court, Trammell looked at Butler, his backcourt mate, and bowed. Then he waved his hands as if to say, “We’re not worthy.”
Butler grinned shyly. The song “California Love” blared through the stadium speakers. San Diego State, relentless as ever, gets to play for the title Monday.