Butler might be back on track.
After two games controlled throughout by its opponent, the Butler men’s basketball team turned the tables Sunday.
Junior center Andrew Smith scored 20 points, two shy of his career-high, to lead the Bulldogs to a 71-55 victory over Youngstown State at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The win moved Butler (10-9, 4-3) into a tie for fourth place in the Horizon League standings. The Bulldogs begin a pivotal four-game road trip Thursday when they visit Illinois-Chicago.
After enduring a mostly uncompetitive loss to Detroit and a failed rally against Cleveland State, Butler coach Brad Stevens watched his young team hold a double-digit lead for the majority of the second half.
“No use using youth as an excuse,” Stevens said. “Today was better. We only played about three bad minutes.”
The Bulldogs’ bench registered a strong showing. Freshman forward-center Kameron Woods had 10 points and 10 rebounds. Freshman guard Jackson Aldridge scored 10 points, and sophomore guard Chrishawn Hopkins added six points and four assists without committing a turnover.
“We can play as hard as the first unit can,” Woods said. “I try to do whatever I can. We try to play really aggressive.”
The Penguins (9-8, 4-3) could not match Butler’s depth. Youngstown State reserves totaled just four points. Senior forward Ashen Ward led the team with 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting.
Butler established control by repeatedly going inside against the smaller Penguins. A trio of big men –Smith, Woods and sophomore forward Khyle Marshall — combined for 23 points in the first half as Butler raced to a 34-27 lead at the intermission. The Bulldogs earned 22 of those points in the paint.
“Our team’s found a better flow on the offensive side,” said Smith, who made 7-of-13 field goals.
Butler started the contest 0-of-9 from 3 before Hopkins drained a look in the right corner off of crisp ball rotation. The shot gave the Bulldogs a 32-23 lead with 4:28 left in the first half.
Youngstown State relied mostly on perimeter offense. It knocked down six of its first 10 3-point tries but fell behind by as many as 20 in the second half when the shots stopped falling.
“They ran us off the 3-point line,” coach Jerry Slocum said. “They’re as good defensively as ever.”
The Penguins helped out by giving the ball away nine times in the first 20 minutes while Butler committed just one turnover in that stretch.
“Our biggest problem was we turned the ball over,” Slocum said. “Defense led to extra offense for them.”
Senior point guard Ronald Nored added seven points, nine rebounds and seven assists for Butler. He had three assists in the first five minutes of the second half, including two dishes to Smith underneath the basket.
Youngstown State checked the 6-foot-11 Smith with 6-7 junior center Damian Eargle. Smith capitalized by approaching his career-best 22-point outing in a Jan. 7, 2011 win against Cleveland State.
“He can run really well,” Stevens said. “He can finish and move. Today he played really active to the ball.”
Butler shot 15-of-20 from the line after missing 17 of 42 tries Friday.
“We’ve been focusing on free throws,” said Smith, a perfect 6-for-6. “We’ve just got to keep that up.”
The Bulldogs beat Youngstown State 38-25 on the glass and 17-4 in second-chance points. They shot 44.6 percent from the floor to the Penguins’ 42 percent.
Woods defended, rebounded and scored at the rim in an impressive 25-minute outing.
“He’s had many great moments as a freshman,” Stevens said. “He’s got a high ceiling.”
In one sequence, Woods leaped to pull in a miss by Smith and give Butler a new shot clock. Later in the possession, Woods took a pass in the left corner and drove to his right around Penguins sophomore forward Josh Chojnacki all the way to the basket. The lay-in provided the Bulldogs their first double-digit lead at 29-19 with 6:22 remaining in the first half.
Butler never looked back.
“I guard a lot of different positions,” Woods said. “Early in the season I was kind of walking through the motions [on offense]. Now I’ve learned the system a lot better.”
The Bulldogs will try to continue Sunday’s success on the road before returning home Feb. 2 to face Wright State.