Lamont Butler practiced moments like these as a little boy, shooting hoops at home, counting down in his mind to the chime of the imaginary shot clock.
Fast forward to last summer, when Butler, a junior guard at San Diego State, made jumpers off a dribble one of his main focus areas in his game, trying to make 10 straight, 15 straight. , until the play and the shot were etched into muscle memory.
This is how these great moments go by: years of dreams, hours and hours of practice, thousands of shots, which are reduced to a couple of tense seconds.
It all came together in an instant for Butler on Saturday night in Houston, when he coldly drained a jumper, that same jumper, from the right side of the court with the game clock expiring to give the Aztecs a win. 72-71 over Florida. Atlantic and a spot in the men’s college basketball national championship game on Monday night.
“I just felt comfortable with that shot and was able to use it today to win the game,” said Butler, 20, of Moreno Valley, Calif., who was mobbed on the court by teammates in the middle of a rapidly filling stadium. filled with people noise.
The win at the buzzer closed out the latest dramatic chapter of this tournament for the Aztecs, who have traveled an unlikely path through the 68-team field with a veteran roster focused on defense and hard play.
But amid the hysteria and merriment of the celebration, Butler’s mind, as it often does, turned silently to her sister, Asasha Hall, who was murdered in March 2022 in her home.
Butler saves a photo of Hall, who was 10 years older than him, as his lock screen wallpaper on his phone. She was his biggest fan, he said.
“She would always be near the court, the loudest court in the gym,” Butler said Saturday night. “She was funny. I had great memories with her. I miss her. I’m doing everything I can to make her happy.”
Butler played last year through the pain of that experience, leaning on coach Brian Dutcher and his teammates for emotional support. His resilience, his ability to compartmentalize his pain and his commitment to basketball left his teammates in awe.
“He’s a better guy than me,” said Matt Bradley, who led the Aztecs with 21 points Saturday. “I don’t know if he would be able to continue as he has with us. Being a leader on this team, everything he’s done for our team this year. He is the backbone.”
It made sense, then, that as Butler fielded question after question from reporters in the San Diego State locker room, his teammates couldn’t hide their delight for him.
“I’m glad he’s having this moment,” forward Jaedon LeDee said. “He deserves it.”
The moment was set up by a missed layup by Florida Atlantic’s Johnell Davis, which would have given the Owls a 3-point lead, but instead left the door open for San Diego State, which trailed by as many as 14 points in the second half.
The rebound fell to the center of the Aztecs, Nathan Mensah, who passed it to Butler, who ran down the right wing and looked for, as he said, a “downhill” path, as Dutcher had indicated.
But as Butler searched for an opening to the rim, his defender slid in to cut him off. So Butler stepped back, he saw there were only 2 seconds left on the clock, and he executed the dribble-and-up move he’d practiced so many times over the past year.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid,” said Butler, who finished the game with 9 points and 3 assists.
It was the second bell of the season for Butler, who scored a game-winning triple at the buzzer on the road against New Mexico in February.
“I told him in Albuquerque to go to the rim as well, and he hit a 3-pointer and did it,” Dutcher said. “I’ll stop telling him what to do and just say: Lamont, you’ve got the ball. And I will live with what happens.
Butler, who attended Riverside Poly High, Reggie and Cheryl Miller’s alma mater, said he was able to make eye contact with his family as he and his teammates walked off the field.
“You can’t even dream of what just happened,” his father, Lamont Butler Sr., said moments after the shot went in.
Together, San Diego State and Florida Atlantic were the interlopers, the unannounced guests of the NCAA Men’s Final Four. They were underdogs and Cinderellas, the weirdness and unpredictability of this year’s tournament personified. That’s how others saw them, at least.
No. 5-seeded San Diego State and No. 9-seeded Florida Atlantic saw things differently. The seals, well-meaning as they were, have slowed down their hard work since last summer. They introduced the element of good fortune from fairy tales, when all the players saw was hard work and the culmination of their skills on the pitch.
The teams, each playing with chips on their shoulders, stepped onto the raised court at NRG Stadium and proceeded to put on a show for the raucous partisan crowd.
Any pre-game questions about how players on both teams would adjust to shooting within the cavernous surroundings of the futsal stadium, with their hoops set against unusually panoramic backdrops, were quickly dismissed. (Some Florida Atlantic players prepared for that circumstance by shooting baskets on the beach near their campus in Boca Raton, Florida.)
Bradley made his first four shots, three of them 3-pointers, to start the game, helping the Aztecs build an early 14-5 lead. It was a promising sign for San Diego State, as Bradley, who averaged 12.5 points per game as their leading scorer this season, had shot just 3-for-17 in the team’s previous two games.
But Florida Atlantic rallied, receiving contributions from nine players and establishing a 40-33 halftime lead. The Owls’ spirit of sharing the ball was on full display, as the players relentlessly sliced through San Diego State’s lauded defense, finding high-quality looks on possession after possession. The Owls shot 53.6 percent in the first half.
Alijah Martin, a sophomore guard, led Florida Atlantic with 26 points and added 7 rebounds, helping the Owls build what appeared to be an insurmountable 14-point lead in the second half.
But the Aztecs reduced the deficit and an open game became tense in the final minutes, with the teams exchanging baskets and errors down the stretch. With the tension mounting, they got within 1 when Houston native LeDee nailed a short-range jumper with 36 seconds remaining.
“We’ve always been knocked down, but the most important thing we do is get up and keep fighting,” Butler said. “We have a lot of maturity in this team. It was nothing to us.”
His persistence set the stage for Butler to work his magic, and he did the rest, letting the training, dreams and emotions of the past year pour out of him in a fateful split second.
Billy Witz contributed reporting from Houston.