Third time’s a charm: Win earns team automatic NCAA berth

The Butler men’s basketball team won its seventh Horizon League tournament championship, a conference record, with a 59-44 victory over the Milwaukee Panthers Tuesday to secure an automatic NCAA tournament berth.

The win was the Bulldogs’ first against the Panthers in three meetings this season and was Butler’s 30th conference tournament victory, also a league record.

Sharp shooting helped give the Bulldogs (23-9, 15-5 HL) an early advantage. Two minutes into the game, junior guard Shelvin Mack connected on a 3-pointer. Howard followed suit by draining a pair of 3-pointers to give the Bulldogs a 15-6 lead with 15:07 remaining.

Butler held the Panthers (19-13, 14-6 HL) without a field goal for nearly eight minutes. In that time, the Bulldogs were able to build a 23-8 lead on 50 percent shooting.

But then Milwaukee senior guard Tone Boyle hit a momentum-shifting 3-pointer with just more than seven minutes remaining in the half. The shot cut Milwaukee’s deficit to 12 points, 25-13.

Four minutes later, Boyle hit another 3-pointer to put the Panthers within 10.

The teams battled back and forth the rest of the half, with the Bulldogs taking a 33-20 lead into the locker room.

The Panthers got off to a quick start in the second half with junior forward Tony Meier connecting on back-to-back 3-pointers, sparking an 11-0 Milwaukee run that cut Butler’s lead to four.

Up 42-37, Butler would then score six unanswered points, capped by a Matt Howard fast break dunk, to take a 48-39 lead.

“We never made that next play,” Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter said.

A Shelvin Mack 3-pointer with 5:21 remaining gave Butler its largest lead of the second half, 54-40.

Closing defense then allowed the Bulldogs to cruise to a 59-44 victory.

“It starts with us being able to get stops and that propels us,” Howard said.

“I thought we defended the way we like to defend,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens added.”

Howard, who was named the tournament MVP, finished the game with 18 points, leading all scorers. Mack and Vanzant joined him on the All-Tournament first team.

“I think we were moving the ball well,” Howard said. “When you move the ball well, you’re going to break down the best teams.”

In the conference semifinals, senior guard Shawn Vanzant scored a season-high 18 points all in the second half to lead the Bulldogs to a 76-68 victory over Cleveland State on Saturday in Milwaukee. Butler never trailed in the contest.

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 tied 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.

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.

Vanzant came up big in the second half for Butler, which 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,” Stevens said. “Most college players won’t make that shot. It was a gut check shot.”

Despite 14 points from senior guard Norris 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 76-68 win 76-68 for Butler.

Howard, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, was one of four Bulldogs, along with Vanzant, to score in double figures. Mack scored 15 and Smith added 12 points and eight rebounds.

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