Butler used its traditional opponent-stifling defense to propel itself to the next round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament with a 68-56 win over Bucknell.
It was the defensive-minded Butler basketball that the nation was introduced to during the Final Four run in 2010. It was the kind of basketball where you can only score 21 points in the first half and still win.
It was the kind of Butler basketball where you can go from having a double-digit lead to being down by six and still win.
“They have some mettle, they have some intestinal fortitude that is built up over time, but also a core part of our program,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “But it is truly a Butler team, which I feel really good about.”
The Bulldogs took a 21-14 lead into the locker room at half-time.
They were only shooting 32 percent and had yet to make a 3-point field goal. But, they had held Bucknell to a mere 25.9 percent shooting from the field and Naismith Player of the Year finalist, senior center Mike Muscala to only two points.
“It may not have been esthetic the entire game, you know missing our first 13 3’s,” Stevens said. “But our defense was really good in the first half. “
The team’s defense let up for about ten minutes at the beginning of the second half, when Bucknell went on a 19-2 run led by senior Joe Willman and Muscala.
Butler went over three minutes without scoring a basket and the Bison extended its lead.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” senior center Andrew Smith said. “We were prepared for something like that and fortunately were able to fight back.”
Stevens called a timeout after Willman scored a jumper to give Bucknell it s largest lead at six points.
Coming out of the timeout freshman guard Kellen Dunham sunk two free-throws to break the dry spell, but it was the seniors who really got Butler going.
Smith hit the first Butler 3-pointer of the game two possessions later, followed by a steal by Marshall to Clark for his first three of the game.
It was the start of a Butler 22-5 run.
“I told them in the locker room there’s a lot of teams in this tournament that wouldn’t be able to withstand a 16-point swing,” Stevens said. “And then have a 16-point swing of their own.”
Butler built its lead to 12, the largest of the game for either team and cruised to the win with 12 made free throws at the end.
Clarke led Butler with 17 points, followed by sophomore Roosevelt Jones and Smith both with 14. Smith finished the game with a double-double by adding a career-high 16 rebounds.
He also set a Butler record for rebounds in a NCAA Tournament game.
Sophomore Alex Barlow set a career-high with 10 points and added five rebounds, four steals and a blocked shot.
“Barlow was dialed into a different level than pretty much any other guy we had on our team the last couple of days,” Steven said. “With his study, getting into the film room, with his ability to read actions.
Bucknell’s Willman finished the day with a career-high 20 points and six rebounds in his last collegiate game.
Butler held Muscala to nine points, tying a career-low.
Butler will play Marquette on Saturday. Butler beat the Golden Eagles back in Novemeber during the Maui Invitational on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Clarke.
The time has not yet been announced.
See photos from the game here.