At the no-name Final Four, San Diego State and UConn prove it’s the stage that matters

·3 min read
Godofredo A. Vasquez/AP

Who needs Duke or North Carolina? Kansas and Kentucky? Or even Caitlin Clark, the most exciting player of either NCAA Tournament, who will play for a national title of her own Sunday?

Turns out it’s the stakes that matter, not the blueness of the blood or the imprimatur of a fast-food chain, and the no-name Final Four delivered two games Saturday that exceeded all expectations.

Seven years after Kris Jenkins shocked the world and North Carolina, and not necessarily in that order, San Diego State’s Lamont Butler made it consecutive buzzer-beaters at NRG Stadium. Butler turned what looked like a certain Florida Atlantic win into an instant, unrecoverable loss.

And speaking of North Carolina losses in the Final Four, Miami took a run at eclipsing Kansas’ historic 16-point comeback in last year’s title game. The Hurricanes were down 20 to Connecticut before going on a run to cut it to as few as eight, injecting some drama into what looked like a snoozer.

As tough as the Canes proved to be in the ACC this season, and in their Elite Eight comeback against Texas, UConn’s just tougher. It will be scant consolation to Miami that its 72-59 loss was the narrowest of any of UConn’s five wins this tournament.

That left the thrills for the first game, which Florida Atlantic led by 14 and for 31 minutes only to lose with no time on the clock, 72-71. Butler’s shot, a pull-up jumper at the buzzer after he’d appeared to dribble himself into a blind alley, and nearly out of bounds as well, came out of nowhere.

The shot was at the same end of the court as Jenkins’ heartbreaker, albeit without the immediate confetti or national-championship finality, and there were more than a few people in the building who had flashbacks.

Roy Williams was sitting Saturday opposite from where North Carolina’s bench had been, resplendent in a purple sweater in the front row with Wanda. Williams had been wandering back down the aisle with a snack during the tribute to broadcaster Jim Nantz. As he reached his seat, Nantz waved at Williams, who raised a giant jug of Coke in response.

Joel Berry is here too, with the ACC Network, and if the bad taste of 2016 was wiped out by the redemptive title in 2017, the bad vibes in this building still linger seven years later even as Jay Wright might have felt nothing but good vibrations on the CBS set.

On the other side of the court, a pair of Duke national titlists — Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, here in his role as UConn coach Dan Hurley’s brother — chatted it up at halftime of the second game, which is about the time Jim Boeheim decided he’d had enough.

It was hard to blame him at that point. Miami couldn’t find any open space against UConn, and the Hurricanes were on the verge of being fed into the UConn wood-chipper before their offense tried to creak into action in the second half.

Still, even then, it was never the smoothly flowing offensive machine anyone who’s watched Miami all season has come to expect. Connecticut takes away so much space, has so much length, that the Hurricanes couldn’t find open shots on the perimeter or at the rim. Miami hadn’t scored fewer than 63 points all season. UConn made the Hurricanes grind for all 59 on Saturday.

So Connecticut will be a heavy favorite on Monday, having won five NCAA Tournament games by an average of 20.6 points, but if San Diego State demonstrated anything Saturday, it’s the stage that matters, not necessarily the names on the fronts, or backs, of the jerseys.

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