Lamont Butler practiced moments like these when he was a young child, shooting on the hoop at his house, counting down to the buzzer of the imaginary shot clock in his mind.
Fast-forward to last summer, when Butler, a junior guard for San Diego State, made one-dribble, pull-up jumpers one of his primary areas of focus in his game, trying to make 10 in a row, 15 in a row, until the move and shot were committed to muscle memory.
That is the way these big moments go: years of dreaming, hours and hours of practice, thousands of shots, boiling down to a couple of tense seconds.
It all came together in a flash for Butler on Saturday night in Houston, when he coolly drained a jumper — that very same jumper — from the right side of the floor with the game clock expiring to give the Aztecs a 72-71 win over Florida Atlantic and a place in the men’s college basketball national championship game on Monday night.
“I just got comfortable with that shot, and I was able to use it today to win the game,” said Butler, 20, of Moreno Valley, Calif., who was mobbed on the court by his teammates amid a stadium rapidly filling with noise.
The buzzer-beater victory closed the latest dramatic chapter of this tournament for the Aztecs, who have barreled an unlikely path through the 68-team field with a veteran roster focused on defense and hard-nosed play.
But amid the hysteria and joy of the celebration, Butler’s mind, as it often does, went quietly to his sister, Asasha Hall, who was killed in March 2022 in her home.
Butler keeps a picture of Hall, who was 10 years older than him, as his lock screen wallpaper on his phone. She was his biggest fan, he said.
“She’d always be close to the court, the loudest in the gym,” Butler said on Saturday night. “She was funny. I had great memories with her. I miss her. I’m doing everything I can to make her happy.”
Butler has played the past year through the pain of that experience, leaning on Coach Brian Dutcher and his teammates for emotional support. His resilience, his ability to compartmentalize his pain and his commitment to basketball left his teammates in awe.
“He’s a better man than me,” said Matt Bradley, who led the Aztecs with 21 points on Saturday. “I don’t know if I’d be able to keep going like he’s been going for us. Being a leader on this team, everything he’s done for our team this year. He’s the backbone.”
It made sense, then, that as Butler answered question after question from reporters in the San Diego State locker room, his teammates could not hide their joy for him.
“I’m glad he’s having this moment,” forward Jaedon LeDee said. “He deserves it.”
The moment was set up by a missed layup from Florida Atlantic’s Johnell Davis, which would have given the Owls a 3-point lead but instead left the door open for San Diego State, which trailed by as many as 14 points in the second half.
The rebound fell to Aztecs center Nathan Mensah, who flipped it to Butler streaking down the right sideline and looking, as he said, for a path “downhill,” as Dutcher had instructed him.
But as Butler searched for an opening to the rim, his defender slid over to cut him off. So Butler doubled back, saw that there were only 2 seconds on the clock and executed the dribble-pull-up move that he had practiced so many times over the past year.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid,” said Butler, who finished the game with 9 points and 3 assists.
It was the second buzzer-beater of the season for Butler, who drained a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer on the road against New Mexico in February.
“I told him in Albuquerque to get to the rim too, and he shot a pull-up 3 and made it,” Dutcher said. “I’ll quit telling him what to do and just say: Lamont, you get the ball. And I’ll live with whatever happens.”
Butler, who attended Riverside Poly High, the alma mater of Reggie and Cheryl Miller, said that he was able to make eye contact with his family as he and his teammates bounded off the court.
“You can’t even dream about what just happened,” his father, Lamont Butler Sr., said moments after the shot went in.
Together, San Diego State and Florida Atlantic were the gate crashers, the unannounced guests of the N.C.A.A. men’s Final Four. They were the underdogs and Cinderellas, the weirdness and unpredictability of this year’s tournament personified. That’s how others saw them, at least.
San Diego State, a No. 5 seed, and Florida Atlantic, a No. 9, viewed things differently. The labels, well intentioned as they were, diminished their hard work since last summer. They introduced the element of fairy-tale good fortune, when all the players saw was hard work and the culmination of their skills on the court.
The teams, each playing with chips on their shoulders, stepped on the elevated court at NRG Stadium and proceeded to put on a show for the raucously partisan crowd.
Any questions before the game about how players on both teams would adjust to shooting inside the cavernous environs of the indoor football stadium, with the hoops set against unusually panoramic backdrops, were quickly brushed aside. (Some Florida Atlantic players prepared for that circumstance by shooting baskets on the beach near their campus in Boca Raton, Fla.)
Bradley made his first four shots — three of them 3-pointers — to start the game, helping the Aztecs build an early 14-5 lead. It was a promising sign for San Diego State, as Bradley, who averaged 12.5 points per game as their leading scorer this season, had shot just 3 for 17 in the team’s previous two contests.
But Florida Atlantic stormed back, receiving scoring contributions from nine players and establishing a 40-33 halftime lead. The Owls’ ball-sharing ethos was on full display, as the players passed relentlessly through the vaunted San Diego State defense, finding high-quality looks on one possession after another. The Owls shot 53.6 percent in the first half.
Alijah Martin, a sophomore guard, led Florida Atlantic with 26 points and added 7 rebounds, helping the Owls build up what seemed to be an insurmountable 14-point lead in the second half.
But the Aztecs chipped away at the deficit, and a wide-open game tightened up in the closing minutes, with the teams trading baskets and miscues down the stretch. With tension building, they pulled within 1 when LeDee, a Houston native, nailed a close-range jumper with 36 seconds left.
“We’ve always been knocked down, but the biggest thing we do is get back up and keep fighting,” Butler said. “We got a lot of maturity on this team. It was nothing to us.”
Their persistence set the stage for Butler to work his magic, and he did the rest, letting the training, the dreaming and the emotions of the past year pour out of him in a fateful split second.
Billy Witz contributed reporting from Houston.