Butler defeats Cleveland State, rides eight-game win streak to finals

The Butler Bulldogs will ride an eight-game winning streak into the final game of the 2011 Horizon League Men’s Basketball Championship where they will face host Milwaukee. Butler has tied Xavier’s record of six consecutive Horizon League appearances in the league championship game.

Senior guard Shawn Vanzant scored a season-high 18 points, all in the second half, to lead the Bulldogs (22-9, 13-5 HL) to a 76-68 victory over Cleveland State on Saturday at U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee. Butler never trailed in the contest.

Prior to the game, Cleveland State head coach Gary Waters noted that his team would need to stay out of foul trouble to stay competitive against Butler. The Vikings (26-8, 13-5 HL) did that, recording only seven personal fouls in the first half. However, Butler was called for 12 first half fouls, including two fouls on four of five Bulldog starters.

Amidst the early foul trouble, the Bulldogs committed seven turnovers in the first eight minutes of play. Despite shooting 57 percent during that stretch, Butler found itself knotted at 13 with 11:30 remaining in the first half.

A turning point came at the 10:48 mark when senior forward Matt Howard drained a 3-pointer, giving Butler a 16-13 lead and sparking a 9-2 Butler run.

Howard, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, was one of four Bulldogs, along with Vanzant, to score in double figures.  Junior guard Shelvin Mack scored 15 and sophomore center Andrew Smith added 12 points and eight rebounds. As a team, Butler outrebounded Cleveland State, 38-29.

The Vikings refused to go down without a fight, hitting four of their final five shots and battling back to within four points with only 30 seconds remaining.

On the last possession of the half, junior guard Ronald Nored penetrated the Viking defense and nailed a 15-footer to send Butler into the locker room with a 41-35 lead.

In Cleveland State’s victory over Wright State on Friday, senior guard Norris Cole scored 13 of his game-high 15 points in the second half. However, a different senior dominated the second half on Saturday.

With the Vikings on a 10-2 run, Butler found itself clinging to a 60-58 lead with five minutes remaining in the game. In a 50-second stretch, Vanzant knocked down two 3-pointers, extending the Bulldogs lead to eight and causing the Butler faithful who made the trip north to rise to their feet.

“The most important of Shawn’s shots was the three when Cleveland State had cut it to a two-point game,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens said. “Most college players won’t make that shot. It was a gut check shot.”

Despite 14 points from Cole in the final 11 minutes, Cleveland State would never get closer than four points. Cole led all scorers with 24 points. A Vikings win would have marked the 100th coaching victory for Waters at Cleveland State.

Vanzant sunk three free throws in the final minute to seal the win, 76-68, for Butler.

During the past four years, Vanzant was looked to primarily on the defensive end, but has recently assumed more of a role on offense.

“It’s a terrific example of what hard work does,” Howard said. “In the summer, you wouldn’t see anyone in the gym more than Shawn.”

Later that night, Milwaukee defeated Valparaiso, 70-63, to secure itself a spot in the championship game versus Butler.

During the Bulldogs’ postgame press conference, Milwaukee and Valpo were warming up a few hundred feet away. When asked which team worries him more, Stevens chose his response wisely.

“We’re playing Tuesday at 9:00 p.m.”

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