HOUSTON (AP) — Lamont Butler hit the biggest shot in San Diego State history, putting the Aztecs in the national championship game for the first time.
The next step, in Monday’s title game, will be a difficult one.
UConn has been the dominant team all through the bracket, delivering one beatdown after another while showing no weaknesses — even on a short turnaround.
The Huskies snatched the euphoria right out of Gonzaga last week in the Elite Eight, ruining the Zags’ vibes after their last-second win over UCLA two days earlier. Baylor did the same thing to Gonzaga in the 2021 national title game, bullying the Zags two days after Jalen Suggs’ miracle shot.
“We don’t stop,” UConn guard Jordan Hawkins said after scoring 13 points against Miami on Saturday night. “We keep putting our foot on their neck. We have a really tough team.”
The Huskies got to the title game by breaking their opponents’ will.
UConn won its first four NCAA Tournament games by at least 15 points and wrecked Miami’s first Final Four appearance by dominating the Hurricanes at both ends in a 72-59 win.
The Aztecs have done it with defense.
San Diego State shut down four straight NCAA Tournament opponents and leaned on its D in the second half to overcome a 14-point deficit to ruin Florida Atlantic’s first Final Four. Butler provided the heroics, hitting a buzzer-beater in the 72-71 win that had all of San Diego celebrating.
The first buzzer-beating game-winner by a trailing team in Final Four history now puts the Aztecs within a win of the Mountain West Conference’s first national title.
“I don’t consider ourselves a mid-major,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “I think we’re a high-major program.”
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.
UConn won its fourth title under Kevin Ollie in 2014, but spiraled downward in the wake of recruiting violations and Ollie’s ugly departure.
When Hurley took over in 2018, UConn was 170th on the KenPom analytics rankings and low on the national relevance scale.
The knock on Hurley’s Huskies then turned to UConn’s meager Marches; two first-round NCAA Tournament burnouts, including to No. 12 seed New Mexico State last year.
UConn had an uneven 2022-23 season, climbing to No. 2 in the AP Top 25, tumbling back toward irrelevance with six losses in eight games.
The Huskies turned into the best team in the maddest of Marches that culminated in the most unexpected Final Four, putting them in position to tie Duke and Indiana for fourth on the all-time championships list.
“The group has shown their quality so many times in terms of the level that we could play at,” Hurley said. “And I think we experienced everything in that month of January, it’s a battle-tested team.”
For San Diego State (32-6), Monday’s title game will be the culmination of the program building Steve Fisher started and Dutcher pushed forward.
Fisher had built San Diego State into a mid-major power, leading them to six straight NCAA Tournaments. When he retired in 2017, the reins were handed to Dutcher, his assistant back to Michigan’s national championship with the Fab Five in 1989.
Dutcher kept many of the same principles Fisher had, adding an extra dash of defensive devilry.
San Diego State appeared ready to break through in 2020, on its way to a likely No. 1 seed before the pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament.
The Aztecs suffered first-round NCAA Tournament flameouts the next two seasons before becoming defensive dominators this year.
San Diego State was fourth in the KenPom.com defensive efficiency ratings while winning 27 games during the regular season. The Aztecs took it to new lows in the NCAA Tournament, holding their first four opponents to 57 points per game and 17% shooting from the 3-point arc.
Upstart FAU appeared to have solved San Diego State’s defense in the first half of Saturday night’s first semifinal, stretching its lead to 14 midway through the second half.
The Aztecs got back to being dirty (in a good way) to get back in it and Butler finished if off with one of the most memorable shots in NCAA Tournament history.
“We’re going to the national championship,” Butler said. “That’s not things many people do.”
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
John Marshall, The Associated Press