WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gordon Hayward, the catalyst of Butler’s magical run to last year’s NCAA championship game, has never second-guessed his decision to leave school after two seasons for the NBA.
Despite losing their best player to the Utah Jazz, Butler (27-9) has returned to the Final Four, leading to speculation how good they would have been if Hayward remained at the tiny liberal arts school.
“I’m very blessed to be here in Utah,” Hayward told reporters on Wednesday on a conference call. “I couldn’t have been happier with the decision.
“Once you make that decision, you just have to move forward and not look back.”
Butler, figured to be an afterthought in this year’s NCAA tournament, will face fellow upstart Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday with a spot in Monday’s title game on the line.
“I’m not surprised at all they got this far,” said Hayward, a small forward who is averaging 4.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in 15 minutes a game for the Jazz. “They’ve got great senior leaders.
“And they’ve got (Final Four) experience. That you can’t teach. None of these guys are going to be rattled by any of these big moments because they’ve all been there before.
“And then you also have the hunger from losing and being so close last year. They want it really bad.”
Hayward launched a shot from halfcourt at the buzzer last year but the ball smacked the backboard and glanced off the rim, giving Duke a 61-59 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium, about eight miles from Butler’s Indianapolis campus.
The soft-spoken Hayward said it was tough to think about his potentially game-winning three-point heave.
“I wanted to win so badly for my team mates and for Butler,” he said. “The shot was actually closer than I thought it would be. The way it ended makes it a little more tough.
“But in the end a loss is a loss. We should have done things better earlier in the game so we would never have gotten to that point.”
The winner of the Butler-VCU game will face either Kentucky or Connecticut, ensuring another alluring David vs. Goliath match-up on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Hayward would not predict the outcome of Saturday’s games but admitted he is rooting for his alma mater.
“Being able to watch those guys — some of them are my best friends — the way that they’ve played and come together, found ways to win, it’s really super exciting,” he said.
Editing by Frank Pingue