SALT LAKE CITY - As Butler's buses rolled to the Indianapolis airport earlier this week, they passed Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the Final Four. Hanging from the side of the stadium is a sign that reads: The Road Ends Here.
As his bus moved by, Butler coach Brad Stevens pointed out the sign to his wife, Tracy. "He said, 'Boy, I hope we're happy when we get here on the way home,' " she said.
The Stevenses will indeed be happy and they will not be alone as Butler (32-4) continued its joyride through the NCAA men's tournament yesterday, knocking off second-seeded Kansas State, 63-56, to win the West Regional and advance to its first Final Four.
As the final buzzer sounded, Butler's players stormed the court and piled atop one another. When they picked themselves up, they gathered near their fans, who serenaded them with chants of "Let's Go Home."
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs may not be the lowest seed in Indianapolis - Tennessee is a No. 6 - but they will be the most endearing. Their boyish-looking coach and a group of mostly homegrown players will rekindle the story of Hoosiers.
The climactic scene from that movie, about a tiny high school that wins the state championship, was filmed at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler's home court.
Gordon Hayward, a sophomore forward who grew up just outside Indianapolis, again showed why he captured the eye of NBA scouts, scoring 22 points, grabbing nine rebounds, and collecting the region's most outstanding player honor.
His alley-oop lay-in with a little less than three minutes to play gave Butler the lead for good, and when he drove to the basket and scored with 1 minute, 2 seconds left, after the Bulldogs twice recovered blocked shots to keep the possession alive, it all but sealed the victory.
"It's OK to call us a midmajor, by the way, Cinderella, whatever you want to call us," Stevens said. "We still get to play."
Kansas State (29-8), which was coming off a double-overtime thriller against Xavier, was clearly taxed.
The Wildcats' star guards, Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen, who were scintillating against Xavier, combined to make just 11 of 30 shots. In the final minutes, Pullen missed two three-pointers and Clemente missed a three-pointer and was short on a free throw.
Whether it was fatigue or the defense of Ronald Nored, Willie Veasley or Shawn Vanzant, the Wildcats' guards could not say.
"I got no excuse," Clemente said. "It just wasn't going in."
Butler, despite being smaller and with center Matt Howard in foul trouble, grabbed 12 more rebounds than Kansas State.
"Mentally, we looked tired," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. "We were sluggish. They annihilated us on the glass."
Clemente, who finished with 18 points, and Pullen, who added 14, did find their legs for a brief stretch late in the second half. They carried Kansas State back from a 10-point deficit to its only lead of the game, 52-51, when Clemente sank a three-pointer from the wing with 4 minutes, 50 seconds to play.
"I thought we had the game won," Kansas State forward Curtis Kelly said. "I thought all we had to do was make some stops and that would be it."
But just as Butler did when it trailed Murray State in the second round and on Thursday when it lost a double-digit lead and fell behind late against top-seeded Syracuse, the Bulldogs dug deeper.
Stevens called a time-out and calmly settled his team. For most of the game, he was in sharp contrast to Martin, a former nightclub bouncer who spent many of his timeouts scowling or screaming.
"I didn't think we handled those last four minutes real well," Martin said.