HOUSTON — Countless times throughout his youth, San Diego State guard Lamont Butler counted down the imaginary clock in his head. “Three, two, one …” he’d say on his home court before firing off an imaginary winner.
Childhood imagination met adult reality Saturday night, a collision of fate, opportunity and thousands of practice shots to meet the moment. Now a San Diego State junior, Butler took a pass with seven seconds left, drove the length of the floor and hit a 17-foot pull-up jump shot that will long live in NCAA lore.
Butler’s shot swished pure through the rim, the buzzer sounding with the ball descending from its arc toward destiny. It delivered No. 5 seed San Diego State a 72-71 win over No. 9 Florida Atlantic, completing a 14-point second-half comeback and giving the Aztecs their only lead of the second half.
After making the fifth-biggest comeback in Final Four history, San Diego State will play in the school’s first national title game against UConn on Monday night.
“I always dreamed of this moment,” Butler said. “I’m just happy it was able to come to fruition.”
When the ball splashed through, Butler strode confidently toward midcourt, where his teammates leapt upon him in joy. On the FAU bench, the players and coaches stood in stunned silence, victims of the first pure buzzer-beater of this NCAA tournament.
Butler said his favorite NCAA tournament buzzer-beater is the 3-pointer that Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit to beat North Carolina for the title in 2016. Butler’s came on the same end of the same court at NRG Stadium in Houston.
“Forever,” San Diego State guard Darrion Trammell said. “I think that’s going to be one of the shots that we’re going to see forever. They’re going to play for previews for March Madness next year and the year after that. I think that was just legendary.”
Butler’s forever moment didn’t come without drama, as San Diego State trailed by one when FAU’s Johnell Davis didn’t even draw rim on a driving layup attempt with about nine seconds left. That shot was made difficult by a strong contest by San Diego State’s 6-foot-11 post menace Nathan Mensah.
After the carom off the backboard, Mensah grabbed the rebound and quickly cleared the outlet ahead to Butler, who glanced at the clock and saw seven seconds. From about 70 feet, Butler began his drive to immortality. It wasn’t linear.
It took six dribbles for Butler to get to the opposite baseline, where he appeared trapped. He took a hesitation dribble for his seventh bounce and then crossed back through his legs from right to left to begin a retreat on his eighth dribble. FAU’s Nicholas Boyd played strong defense to cut Butler off and forced him into what appeared, for a moment anyway, like he had dribbled into an abyss and would have difficulty getting off a shot.
On the FAU bench, there was optimism that Boyd had led a defensive stand that would send the Owls to the national title game. Butler took off with the intention of bulling his way to the basket for a layup, but Boyd forced him to improvise.
“We felt like [Butler] lost the ball,” FAU assistant coach Todd Abernethy said. “My first naked eye thought was he wasn’t gonna get it off in time.”
Instead, Butler’s dribble through his legs marked a shift in direction. He dribbled once more to his left to complete the transition from baseline to wing and left the ground with 1.1 seconds left. That last move ended up mimicking a one-dribble pull-up shot he had done countless times in workouts.
“From the cutoff, it was a one-dribble pull-up,” Butler said. “I went left one dribble, kind of sold it like I was going to drive and just pulled up.”
Boyd sailed past Butler, seemingly buying what he was selling, and flailed up his left hand behind him for an awkward contest.
“It felt good as soon as it left my hand,” Butler said.
Butler knows the feeling. He didn’t return home to Moreno Valley, California, in the summer in order to work on his game. He said last season he didn’t attempt many midrange shots, so that became a focus of his offseason regiment. In the gym every day, he focused on making 10 or 15 shots in a row from that range to improve his consistency.
In the stands, his father, Lamont Sr., wore a baby blue San Diego State jersey and the halogen glow of pride in his son. He said that about 20 friends and family members traveled to Houston — “it wasn’t cheap” — and were rewarded by seeing all those gym hours pay off.
“All the work Lamont put in, and this is what you live for,” Lamont Butler Sr. said. “To be able to hit a game-winning shot to take your team to a championship, we couldn’t have scripted it any better. He just trusted the work.”
That trust proved the crescendo of a consummate team win, as San Diego State dug deep to climb back in the game after trailing by 14 in the final 15 minutes. The Aztecs are a marauding team predicated on toughness and depth, and they showed their mettle with a string of seven offensive rebounds in a span of nearly two minutes in the second half that ground the game down to their preferred pace.
“They went on a run, getting extra possessions,” said FAU guard Alijah Martin, who scored a game-high 26 points. “And that was really the turning point of the game.”
That set up a tense and choppy ending, as FAU led by three points with 45 seconds left after a Martin layup gave it a 71-68 lead. A quick answer on a jumper by San Diego State forward Jaedon LeDee cut the lead to one, and then Mensah’s defensive work gave the Aztecs the final possession with a chance to win.
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher elected not to call timeout, and Butler barreled down the court toward history. His shot has San Diego State, which is making its first Final Four appearance, one win from the national title. It’s the second consecutive game won in the final seconds, as Trammell hit a free throw with 1.2 seconds left to beat Creighton to clinch the spot in the Final Four.
“I don’t think anything will sink in until it’s over with,” Butler said. “I’m just so happy that we’re in this position and we have a chance to win the national championship.”