HOUSTON — San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher didn’t bother calling a timeout because he didn’t have the play he wanted to call.
He doesn’t need one.
Lamont Butler already won the Aztecs a game on a buzzer-beater this season, and there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again. Even if the stakes are a little higher than winning the Mountain West title.
After trailing for the final 27-plus minutes, Butler gave San Diego State its only lead that mattered as time expired to upset Florida Atlantic 72-71 in the Final Four on Saturday night.
“(Coach) told me to go downhill, get something at the rim,” Butler said. “They did a good job cutting me down. I looked up one time and there were two seconds left and I knew I had to make a shot.
“I got a comfortable shot and went for a pull-up. I’m glad it went in.”
So is anyone associated with San Diego State. Nearly 50 years after their first NCAA men’s tournament appearance, the fifth-seeded Aztecs will play in the championship game for the first time Monday night against either Miami or UConn.
It was the second straight game San Diego State had won by one point and the third game the Aztecs had to rally in the second half.
“We’ve been in that position a lot of times all year,” said Matt Bradley, who found his shooting stroke as he scored 21 points. “We always get knocked down. But the biggest thing we always do is get back up and fight.”
The Owls opened the tournament with a last-second escape against Memphis, and they exited the tournament the same way.
San Diego State erased a 14-point, second-half deficit with a 23-9 run, tying the game on Agu Arop’s second-chance jumper with 4:24 left. But Giancarlo Rosato answered with a turnaround jumper, and when Alijah Martin scored on a driving layup with 45 seconds to play, FAU appeared to hold off the Aztecs.
Jaden Leidy scored on a pullup jumper to cut the Owls’ lead to 71-70 with 36 seconds left. The teams exchanged timeouts, and FAU called another one before Janelle Davis missed a driving layup with nine seconds left.
Nathan Mensah grabbed the rebound and everyone in the arena assumed Dutcher would run out the clock. But Dutcher had already told the San Diego State players to come down at the previous deadline.
“I figured if we were lucky we’d get the ball with seven seconds left,” Dutcher said. “I had three big guys in the game. I told them, ‘All three of you run to the rim, Lamont, you go to the basket and we’ll see what happens.’ “
It was the same scene that the Aztecs encountered in New Mexico at the end of February. There were only five seconds left on the clock and Butler hit a 3 to win the game 73-71.
“I’ll stop telling him what to do and say, ‘Lamont, you get the ball, I’ll live with whatever happens,'” Dutcher joked.
Mensah threw the ball to Butler, who tried to drive to the basket but couldn’t find an opening as FAU’s Nick Boyd and Brian Greenlee blocked his path. Instead, he took a step back and pulled up, leaving Boyd’s hand flying in his face with 0.7 seconds left.
“I don’t really have a lot of angles,” Butler said. “Like I said, I got a comfortable shot, a triple pull-up. I tried to sell that I was going to the rim, and I just got up and hit the shot.”
Rosado said, “That was great defense by Nick Boyd. You can’t play better defense than that. (Butler) made a tough shot. Credit to him.”
Just like it did in Albuquerque, Butler’s shot went in.
“A little shocked. I didn’t know how big it was,” Butler said, stunned as the other Aztecs surrounded him as Arob lifted him into the air. “We’re going to the national championship; that’s something a lot of people don’t do.
“I’m glad it went in,” he added. “It felt good when it left my hand.”
Sometimes, plans — or in San Diego State’s case, plays — are overdone. Tear it up and see where it takes you.
In this case, it takes the Aztecs to the national title game.
Follow USA TODAY sports columnist Nancy Armor on Twitter @nrramour.