The Butler men’s basketball team earned a share of its fifth consecutive Horizon League regular season title Saturday, when it defeated Loyola, 63-56, in front of a sold out crowd.
However, tiebreakers will send the Bulldogs (21-9, 13-5 HL) to Milwaukee as the No. 2 seed, which grants them a first- and second-round bye in the conference tournament.
The victory could have been the last home game for the 2011 senior class, which consists of guard Alex Anglin, guard Zach Hahn, forward Matt Howard, guard Grant Leiendecker and guard Shawn Vanzant.
During the past four seasons, the five seniors have helped lead the Bulldogs to four Horizon League regular season championships, two Horizon League tournament titles and three straight NCAA tournament appearances, including last year’s national runner-up finish. Their 110 wins are the second-most by any senior class in Butler men’s basketball history.
A 7-2 Butler run just after the 13-minute mark in Saturday’s contest was capped by five straight points from junior guard Shelvin Mack, giving the Bulldogs a 14-10 lead.
The Ramblers (16-14, 7-11) responded with an 11-2 run of their own, taking a 21-16 advantage with 7:41 remaining in the first half.
Loyola held that lead until the one-minute mark when junior guard Ronald Nored scored in transition, drew a foul and attempted to convert the three-point play at the free-throw line. Nored’s free toss was off the mark, but
Howard pulled down the rebound and found a cutting Nored who laid it up and in to give Butler a 29-26 lead.
The Bulldogs would never trail again.
On the final possession of the half, Mack drained a 3-pointer as time expired to send the Bulldogs into the locker room with a 32-26 lead. Mack scored 14 first-half points and finished the game with 18, leading all scorers.
A few minutes before halftime, Butler head coach Brad Stevens, left the game to see an eye doctor.
“My vision got progressively worse as we were getting ready to start the game,” Stevens said in a press release. “By the final media timeout of the first half, I could not see the other end of the court and everything in front of me was blurry.”
Stevens was later diagnosed with a corneal edema, a condition in which the cornea swells from being overly hydrated by accumulated fluid.
Stevens recovered and returned to practice on Sunday.
Associate head coach Matthew Graves relieved Stevens in the second half and was at the helm when sophomore guard Chase Stigall put on a show.
Stigall, who was held scoreless in the first half, scored five consecutive points to start the second.
He finished with 10 points, including a momentum-shifting play near the eight-minute mark, when Loyola freshman guard Denzel Brito grabbed a defensive rebound following a missed 3-pointer by Howard.
As Stigall’s teammates hustled down the court to defend the Ramblers transition offense, Stigall snuck up behind Brito, stole the ball and converted a layup.
However, the Bulldogs needed help from a few seniors to seal the victory.
Putting Loyola’s comeback hopes further out of reach, Vanzant, who finished with 10 points, knocked down a 3-pointer to put the Bulldogs up by eight, 60-52.
Hahn was able to help seal Butler’s 63-56 victory by sinking two crucial free throws in the game’s final minute.
Nored finished with eight points, and sophomore center Andrew Smith finished with six points and a game-leading 11 rebounds.
Following the game, feelings were bittersweet as the seniors said their goodbyes to the home crowd and reflected on their time at Butler University.
“Now that it’s over, it’s a little bit crazy to think that you’re never playing on Hinkle’s floor again as a Butler Bulldog,” Howard said. “We’re very appreciative of everyone that came out. We haven’t had a crowd like that all year.”
The city of Connersville, Ind., bought 1,400 tickets to see Howard, a Connersville native, put up nine points and seven rebounds in his Hinkle finale.
New Castle (Ind.) High School, alma mater of Hahn and Stigall, purchased 200 tickets for the afternoon game.
Butler will play in the Horizon League Tournament Semifinals at 6 p.m. on Saturday in Milwaukee. The Bulldogs face the winner of a Cleveland State-Wright State contest, which takes place Friday evening.
Regardless, Graves is confident that his squad is peaking at the right time.
“Heading into postseason play, the way we have been defending is encouraging,” Graves said. “We are right where we need to be.”