HOUSTON — San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher just stood there while the net danced and pandemonium erupted around him. Players charged onto the court and jumped on Lamont Butler, first Aguek Arop, then Darrion Trammell, then Elijah Saunder off the bench, maybe the fastest a 6-foot-8, 240-pound human has ever moved.
An assistant coach jumped on the back of another.
Dutcher just stood there through it all.
And shook his head.
The adventure continues. The magical, mystical, marvelous ride continues.
San Diego State trailed by 14 and didn’t lead Florida Atlantic in the second half until Lamont Butler’s 14-footer from the right side was released with .6 seconds left and made the net dance after 0:00, giving the Aztecs a 72-71 win at Houston’s NRG Stadium and putting them in the national champion game here Monday night against Connecticut or Miami.
Repeat: SDSU will play for the national championship.
That is not an April Fool’s joke.
It wasn’t Butler’s dramatic first buzzer beater of his career, or even the season. He made a deep 3-pointer at New Mexico in a sold-out Pit in late February to clinch a share of the Mountain West title, so there was no mystery who was shooting when the Aztecs got the back down one with nine seconds left.
Butler drove, stopped, created the slightest bit of separation and rose up to shoot.
“We found a way, and Lamont found a way to send us to the next round,” Dutcher said. “We’re proud to be moving on, representing San Diego State and the city of San Diego on Monday night.”
Butler said he was told to “go downhill” — to the rim — but was blocked. He found a shot he was comfortable with, a midrange jumper, and hit it.
“I’m just so happy that we’re in this position and have a chance to win a national championship,” Butler said.
The Aztecs trailed by, gulp, 14 midway through the second half after a technical foul turned into a five-point play for the Owls.
If you thought it was over, you haven’t been watching this team. They came back from nine down in the second half to beat No. 1 overall seed Alabama in the Sweet 16. And they did it again Saturday, tying it with four minutes to go.
They could and probably should have taken the lead, but free throws — that old bugaboo — bit them at the most inopportune time. In the final seven minutes, they were 4 of 12, although they stayed in the game by grabbing offensive rebounds on four of those misses.
Down two, Micah Parrish — who has played through an injured wrist the last couple weeks — missed a pair. Then Matt Bradley went 1 of 2.
FAU called timeout up one with 57.4 seconds left, and Alijah Martin delivered with a reverse layup for two of his game-high 26 points. Jaedon LeDee made a jumper in the lane to close to one again, and the Aztecs quickly called timeout with 36.2 seconds left.
They had a decision: Foul, or risk FAU burning the 30-second shot clock and leaving them with six.
They opted to rest on their defense. After a pair of FAU timeouts, they stood tall and coaxed a miss by Johnell Davis that Nathan Mensah rebounded.
This time, Dutcher didn’t call timeout, unlike at New Mexico. He said there is no hard and fast rule, just a feel. His gut told him to let them go, let them figure it out on the floor.
“March is for players,” Dutcher has said over and over during their tournament run.
Butler had 18 points in the one-point win against Creighton in the Elite Eight last Sunday in Louisville. But he only had half that Saturday, just two in the second half before his 14-footer from the right side that will live in Aztec lore for decades.
Bradley led them this time with 21 points. LeDee had 12 points off the bench. Trammell, the MVP of the South Region last week, had only five.
Bradley had been underwhelming so far in the tournament, especially in the previous two games — averaging 4.0 points on 3-of-17 shooting (0 of 3 on 3s).
“I’m hoping the other team is counting me out as somebody who can score the ball,” Bradley said Friday. “I know I’ll make them pay if I have the opportunity.”
He had the opportunity, and he made them pay. Bradley made his first four shots — three from behind the arc — and already had 11 points when he subbed out with 13:34 left in the first half. The Aztecs led 14-5.
The score when he returned 3 1/2 minutes later: 20-17, Owls.
Then Bradley went cold, and the real trouble began.
The Aztecs finished the half with 33 points on 44.8% shooting, five turnovers and two more offensive rebounds than the Owls. That wasn’t the problem. Those numbers were actually better than they’ve been all tournament in the first half.
The problem was at the other end. On, yes, defense.
Teams have been shooting 17% and making an average of four 3s per game against the Aztecs during the tournament. The Owls made one on their first possession and had six by halftime. Overall shooting: 53.6%.
The issue was ball screens and whether to switch or fight over them. The Aztecs uncharacteristically went under or got stuck in them, giving the Owls open looks that they knocked down despite all the talk of traditional difficulties shooting in a roofed NFL stadium with no immediate backdrops.
Their lead grew to eight, drawing a timeout from Dutcher. Trammell dribbled up and jacked up a 3 — not the play, you figured, that he diagrammed in the huddle — and FAU with a turnaround jumper in the lane by Giancarlo Rosado to push the margin to 10 before the Aztecs closed to 40-33 at the half on rare 3 by Keshad Johnson.
The Aztecs were no doubt pleased to see John Higgins on the three-man officiating crew. He regularly works the Mountain West, so there’s familiarity. There’s also this: The Aztecs were 17-1 the last 18 times he was on their games.
But Kipp Kissinger, most commonly seen in the supposedly rough and tumble Big 12, was also in the crew and decided to call the game tighter than Higgins or Bert Smith, regularly whistling touch fouls that were ignored in previous tournament games.
Midway though the second half, SDSU had 15 fouls to FAU’s eight and 17-10 in the Owls’ favor in free throws. The Owls also were in the bonus with 11:11 left; the Aztecs weren’t close.
FAU got the lead to 14 after a dead-ball technical foul on Micah Parrish that began a sequence of five straight free throws by the Owls with just two seconds ticking off the clock. Martin made all five — two for the T, then three after Nathan Mensah fouled him shooting a 3.
But the Aztecs kept plugging away, plugging away, and with 9:05 left it was down to two.
With 4:22 left, after a sequence where SDSU grabbed offensive rebounds after missed free throws four straight times, it was tied.
San Diego St. 72, FAU 71
FAU: Goldin 2-4 1-5 5, Boyd 4-8 0-0 12, Davis 2-9 4-4 8, Greenlee 2-6 0-0 5, Martin 7-13 9-10 26, Rosado 4-4 0-0 8, Weatherspoon 0-3 2-2 2, Gaffney 1-2 0-0 3, Forrest 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 23-52 16-21 71.
SAN DIEGO STATE: K.Johnson 1-2 0-0 3, Mensah 3-6 1-1 7, Bradley 5-12 7-9 21, Butler 3-6 2-2 9, Trammell 2-8 0-0 5, Arop 4-5 1-2 9, Parrish 2-6 0-2 6, LeDee 5-12 2-6 12, Seiko 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-57 13-22 72.
Halftime—FAU 40-33. 3-Point Goals—FAU 9-22 (Boyd 4-7, Martin 3-7, Gaffney 1-1, Greenlee 1-2, Forrest 0-1, Weatherspoon 0-1, Davis 0-3), San Diego St. 9-18 (Bradley 4-8, Parrish 2-4, Butler 1-1, K.Johnson 1-1, Trammell 1-4). Rebounds—FAU 31 (Greenlee, Martin 7), San Diego St. 35 (Mensah, Bradley, LeDee 6). Assists—FAU 6 (Rosado 3), San Diego St. 8 (Butler 3). Total Fouls—FAU 17, San Diego St. 17.