SALT LAKE CITY — This is what it's like when you're making your own little history: The locker room is a happy place.
There is a guy from the team taking snapshots for the years ahead. The media keep coming in waves.
And the game is easier than ever before. Not in the sense that you're cruising without a care. Heaven knows, Butler was close to losing in the late minutes of its 63-59 win over Syracuse on Thursday, to send the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight for the first time.
But the loose balls mostly go your way, and the shots, like the one Willie Veasley took with under two minutes to go, bounce way too high and go in anyway, and he ends up saying it's almost like playing a game of H-O-R-S-E. And you slap the ball away from the opponent at the end, and suddenly you're in a new place.
In a place that was once a pipe dream.
"I mean, yeah, it's a new place," Butler star Gordon Hayward says. "We've never been here before, so it's special to all of us."
And this is what you say while there are still games to play: "But we don't want to stop there," continues Hayward. "We want to keep going."
This is how you play when there are modest expectations from everyone outside that same locker room.
You go for broke.
You go after a big team like Syracuse — a team that absolutely rolled through its first two games — and don't look back. You take it to the rim, and you dare the refs to call a foul. Pretty soon you have them raising their hands in supplication, begging for a call. You force them to commit 18 turnovers, 12 in the first half alone.
And soon, it's just like in the driveway, except millions watch.
"I think we were just playing basketball," says Hayward. "I mean, we've done this our whole lives, and we've been down before and come back."
You're in a place where teams get remembered for years.
"That's what people have been telling us," says Butler forward Matt Howard. "They've been saying, you know, you're not a legit team until you get here, so I'm just glad we were able to prove we are a legit team, whatever that means."
Whatever psychological advantage team like Syracuse may have going into the game goes out the window in the first few minutes. You jump ahead 10-1. You are aggressive, enthused and wholly involved. The other guys, who are supposed to win, are struggling early. They come out looking like they slept too late. They try to make it seem like no big deal, there's lots of time, but the clock never quits, it just keeps dwindling. The big team doesn't score its first field goal until the game is seven minutes old. By that time, it has six turnovers, which stretch to 12 by the break.
And even when you're down by four and there are three minutes to go in the game, you don't panic. You make a three right in their faces and say, without really saying it, "Right back at ya."
This is what it's like when you're a No. 5 seed and you beat a No. 1, and when you're a No. 6 seed (Xavier) and you make impossible shots down the stretch, but you lose 101-96 to a No. 2 (Kansas) in two overtimes: You do everything you can — including a 30-footer to send it into a second overtime — until that one last shot that grazes the front of the rim.
So you walk off beaten but not defeated.
And the team that won earlier in the day hurts for you, but still, it ends up saying the very same thing you've been aching to say yourself: "I think you can say that we can get rid of that, you know, being a small school and surprising everybody," says Veasley.
And you both walk away knowing luck can be both a cruel and beautiful thing.
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