Imaginative Butler ready for biggest dream yet

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Growing up an only child, Da’Sean Butler had a wild imagination. To stay entertained, he had to.

So he would go in the backyard at home in Newark, N.J., shoot some hoops and let his mind run free. He’d haul down big rebounds, shoot game-winning shots — lay-ups and jumpers, twos and threes, nothing but net and off the glass — and play the announcer all at once.

Lately, a lot of those one-time dreams have come true.

Butler has hit six game-winning shots this season, including two in the Big East Tournament. His first that week, against Cincinnati, made it feel like the family driveway ran through Madison Square Garden. As he set to shoot, he said to his defender: “Bank.”

Cincinnati’s Lance Stephenson confused for just a split-second, Butler rose up and banked in a game-winning bomb as the lamp went off, almost as if to call him inside for dinner.

A “H.O.R.S.E.” shot to advance in the league tournament? New York hadn’t seen a called shot with that kind of gusto since Babe Ruth called his in the 1932 World Series.

It took a lot of nerve, a lot of confidence and a lot of imagination.

“I still do it to this day, B.S.-ing around in the gym,” Butler said. “Pretending the clock’s running down and you’re just throwing up crap. That’s pretty much what’s been happening the past five-or-whatever buzzer beaters, just throwing up crap and it’s falling in.”

His basketball daydreams encompass the whole game, and not every scenario he plays through is as joyous as a buzzer beater.

Thursday against Washington, Butler took a hard spill in the first half. He fell hard on his hand and his posterior. And then his back, because he bounced a little bit after the initial smack. Big posterior, he blamed in different terms.

When he hit the ground, he didn’t know how bad his injuries would or wouldn’t be. But he knew how he would react, because he’s been there before — in some form or another.

“This kid’s walking and he’s limping,” Butler said, drifting between first- and third-person references to himself. “I come out of the backyard, I’m back and I’m playing, shooting shots and making them.

“I have every comeback story in my head.”

Butler has been in position to hit game-winning shots because his Mountaineers win games with their strength on the boards and a hard-to-decipher defense; all despite the West Virginia offense, which doesn’t offer much wiggle room. Beating Washington by 13 on Thursday felt more like 23.

If West Virginia has a chance to beat UK and move on to the Final Four, it likely will have to come in a tightly contested, low-scoring game. In such an event, either team could claim it has college basketball’s finest clutch performer. Almost as often as Butler, the Cats’ John Wall has had his share of game-winners on one end and game-savers on the other.

So what if you get the last shot Saturday, Da’Sean? Do you get nervous?

“No,” he said confidently, moving on to the next question. Then he paused. “Yeah, yes I do. No reason to lie about that.”

He said he’s nervous because he wants to be shown in One Shining Moment crying in celebration, not crying in defeat. And in his fantasy, 100 percent of the reel is dedicated to Da’Sean’s shining moments. And who needs Jennifer Hudson? He’s singing the song, too.

“I changed the song, though,” Butler said. “ ‘The World’s Greatest’ by R. Kelly is being played in the background while I’m doing all these things. It’s my voice singing R. Kelly’s song, and I’m making all the plays.”

So just because West Virginia hasn’t reached the Final Four since 1959, that doesn’t mean Butler hasn’t been there. In his own world, he has.