Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said his team needed an act of God to help it win in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The Vikings entered Friday’s Horizon League showdown just 2-17 all-time on the home floor of Butler’s men’s basketball team.
Waters got what he wanted.
Behind 18 points from senior point guard Jeremy Montgomery, Cleveland State used strong defense and rebounding to hold off a late Bulldogs rally.
Cleveland State won 76-69.
The Vikings (15-3, 5-1) won for the 10th time in their last 12 games. Using four seniors in the starting lineup, Cleveland State knocked off a younger version of the Bulldogs, who had won five straight in the series.
“They’re very old,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “That maturity played out well.”
Butler (9-9, 3-3) lost its second consecutive game, still struggling to find answers with a new-look roster.
“You don’t have Matt Howard, it’s a whole different ballgame,” Waters said, referring to the former Butler star who graduated last May.
Junior center Andrew Smith scored 13 points for the Bulldogs, with senior point guard Ronald Nored and junior guard Chase Stigall each contributing 12.
A season-long ailment, foul shooting, troubled Butler once again. The Bulldogs missed 17 free throws despite attempting a season-high 42. They entered the night ranked 325th in free-throw percentage (60.8) out of 344 Division I teams.
“Everybody’s talking to them about it,” Stevens said. “You’ve got to dig deep, take a deep breath. It’s just you and the basket.”
Butler trailed 64-54 with 4:31 remaining. The closest the Bulldogs came to evening the score was a banked-in 3 by Nored that made it 72-69 with 20 seconds to go.
Senior guard Trevon Harmon, who finished with 12 points, subsequently connected on two foul shots to give the Vikings a five-point lead and put the game out of reach.
Butler struggled from the field (40.5 percent), was outrebounded 31-24 and was outscored 28-12 in the paint.
“They physically outdid us inside the 3-point line,” Stevens said.
The Vikings put Butler in a big hole early. Freshman forward Anton Grady’s putback gave Cleveland State a 20-4 lead with just more than seven minutes gone by in the first half.
The Bulldogs gradually fought back by hitting six 3’s. Smith nailed the last of those, a shot from the top of the key to bring Butler within 35-33 at halftime.
Much of the Bulldogs’ early offense centered upon jump shots, perhaps a result of Waters’ defensive plan to stop Smith in the post.
“We were swarming that basketball, making them kick it out,” Waters said.
Cleveland State played a physical brand of defense. The Vikings were whistled for 15 fouls in the first half, then committed nine more fouls in the first nine minutes of the second.
Peeved at the disparity, however, Waters yelled at an official standing at his side, earning a technical foul.
“Those guys will try to punch and fight and scratch,” Montgomery said. “We wanted to punch back.”
Butler felt the brunt of two fouls labeled Flagrant 1’s. The second was particularly rough and sent sophomore forward Kyle Marshall sprawling to the floor with 7:04 to play after a midair collision with Harmon.
Stevens started Marshall for the first time since Nov. 23. Marshall added 11 points and blocked two shots.
The Vikings frequently made use of the dribble in this one, driving past Butler’s defenders to shoot 48.1 percent.
Cleveland State’s bigs did much of the damage. Junior forward Tim Kamczyc had 17 points, senior center Aaron Pogue had eight, and Grady finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
But it was Montgomery who carried the day, scoring 16 points after halftime.
“We did a great job in the first half,” Nored said. “If you let your guard down for just a second, he’s that kind of player.”
Butler recovered from a 16-point deficit to lead 41-40 with 16:27 to play. The Bulldogs lost that lead on the next possession and trailed the rest of the way as Montgomery got hot.
“We’ve got to play better,” Nored said. “We have to start [games] better. It’s obvious how good this league is.”
One positive for the Bulldogs was their improved ball movement. Butler assisted on 14 of its 17 field goals, including a pretty lob from sophomore guard Chrishawn Hopkins to Marshall for a soaring dunk.
But another loss, coupled with the sounds of a red-hot Cleveland State team joyously shouting through the hallways of Hinkle, have left doubt as to whether Butler can win the league tournament for a third consecutive season.
“That was an unbelievable two years,” Waters said. “The intensity and how hard [the 2011-’12 team] played [Friday] was similar. Brad’s going to get them going, no question in my mind.”
Butler next plays Sunday at home against Youngstown State. Tipoff is set for 2 p.m.