SALT LAKE CITY - Willie Veasley glanced up while running back on defense as his 3-pointer bounced high off the rim like so many of Butler’s shots had before.
He paused, though, as the ball drifted back, caromed off the backboard and fell through the net — a huge bounce that helped seal the Bulldogs’ 63-59 upset of top-seeded Syracuse on Thursday night in the West Regional semifinals.
Veasley followed his fortunate 3 with a tip-in as the Bulldogs scored 11 straight points and became the latest mid-major team to knock off a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
Now, after reaching the regional finals for the first time in school history, Butler is one win from going home to Indianapolis for the Final Four.
“I was headed down the court on defense because I figured it was going to go over the top of the backboard. But I looked back and it came down and went through,” Veasley said. “That was a H-O-R-S-E shot. I’ve never made a shot quite like that.”
Veasley pumped his fist and grinned as he continued toward the other end. It was fitting that he was already headed back on defense. Instead of Syracuse’s vaunted zone controlling the game, Butler’s pesky man-to-man defense was the difference as the Bulldogs scrapped through poor shooting and won their 23rd straight game.
“We said this word over and over in Indianapolis, and that word is ‘resolve.’ These guys have resolve,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s hard to measure, but they’ve got it.”
The Bulldogs (31-4) certainly did in the last five minutes, holding the Orange without a point from the time Syracuse went up by four with 5:23 left until a too-little-too-late layup with 35 seconds remaining.
Gordon Hayward scored 17 points and started the celebration while dribbling out the clock after the Bulldogs forced Syracuse into its 18th turnover.
The Orange (30-5) made only three more field goals than turnovers in another loss in the round of 16. Syracuse hasn’t played in the regional finals since winning the 2003 national title.
“The game was a story of turnovers. They didn’t make turnovers,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “They were really good with the basketball. We just had 18 turnovers and you can’t give away that many possessions.”
Veasley finished with 13 points and three steals. Ronald Nored finished with five steals and hit a 3-pointer to start the decisive run.
“Under any circumstance, I think we’re poised. You have to be tough,” said Nored, whose 3-pointer with 3:14 left cut Syracuse’s lead to 54-53.
Wes Johnson had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Orange, the second No. 1 seed to go down. Northern Iowa stunned top-ranked Kansas in the second round of the Midwest Regional last weekend.
Scoop Jardine added 14 points and five assists and Andy Rautins scored 15, including a 3-pointer to open the second half. That sent the Orange on a 15-4 run that gave them their first lead.
But the sloppy Orange couldn’t overcome all their turnovers, and the 2-3 zone that so many wondered whether Butler could crack was no match for the Bulldogs’ sharp shooting in the final minutes after Syracuse had taken a 54-50 lead with 5:23 left — then didn’t score again for almost five minutes.
“We knew they pride themselves on defense and they played us tough,” Johnson said. “We accomplished a lot this season as the expectations for this team weren’t very high. We won games we weren’t supposed to and won the Big East Conference outright. We have a lot to be happy about. But to lose like this, it hurts.”
After Nored hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one, Matt Howard scored inside to put the Bulldogs back ahead and then Veasley got his fortunate bounce off the rim and backboard to put Butler up 58-54.
Veasley added a tip-in on Butler’s next possession, and the Bulldogs held on.
After leading by 12 in the first half, the Horizon League champions were in jeopardy of getting run over by the Orange as they recovered from a frustrating start. But Syracuse could never get its transition game going and the easy baskets weren’t there, thanks to the Bulldogs.
Butler was just 6 for 24 from 3-point range, but the Bulldogs never stopped shooting from beyond the arc — and hustling back on defense.
Syracuse had one good break late in the second half and it turned out to be the last. After a 3-pointer by Rautins put his team up 52-50, Johnson grabbed a defensive rebound and got the Orange off and running on the kind of fast break they flashed all season before getting stymied by Butler.
Johnson passed to Jardine, who got the ball to Kris Joseph for a dunk that put Syracuse up 54-50 with 5:23 left.
The Orange didn’t score again until Jardine’s layup with 35 seconds remaining cut Butler’s lead to 61-56.
Syracuse played again without center Arinze Onuaku, sidelined since the Big East tournament with a right quadriceps injury, and had to sit 6-foot-9 Rick Jackson when he was called for his fourth foul with 8:08 left.
Jackson finished with just four points, but did pull down nine rebounds.
Syracuse’s loss left No. 2 seed West Virginia as the only Big East team remaining in the tournament. The league received eight bids — most of any conference.
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