It wasn’t pretty. It was intense. It was chippy. It was near disaster. It was just another night in the Big East conference.
The Butler men’s basketball team once again found itself in a tight conference game, coming away with a 64-61 win over the Creighton Bluejays Wednesday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The win – Butler’s first against Creighton in 81 years – pushes Butler’s record to 14-6 overall and 4-3 in the Big East, matching its conference win total from a year ago.
The Bulldogs got out to a 35-27 at halftime, but that eight-point lead was just about the furthest they would distance themselves from the Bluejays (9-11, 0-7) the rest of the way out.
Trailing 57-48, the Bluejays used an old-fashioned three-point play from junior James Milliken to start a key run with 5:16 to play. On the next two possessions senior Rick Kreklow and Milliken hit back-to-back long balls to tie the game.
Creighton took its first and only lead of the game at 59-57 with 2:00 to go in the game on two Milliken free throws.
Junior Roosevelt Jones split a pair of free throws on the next possession to pull the Bulldogs within one point.
From there on out, the Bulldogs went 4-for-4 from the free throw line, including two from senior Alex Barlow with three seconds to go.
Kreklow put up a half court heave that missed just left off the glass, effectively pushing the Bluejays’ losing streak to eight games, leaving Greg McDermott’s team still winless in Big East play.
Jones led the way for the Bulldogs with a game-high 18 points and 10 rebounds, his first double-double of the season.
Wednesday was the first game that Dunham, the team’s leading scorer, failed to reach double digits in the scoring column, finishing with seven points and just one assist, albeit a big one, as it proved to be the game-winning basket by Chrabascz.
Kreklow was the Bluejays’ leading scorer with 16, and Milliken finished with 10. Leading scorer Austin Chatman was held to just six points.
The Bulldogs held a slim 38-36 rebounding advantage over the Bluejays, but owned the offensive glass, as they have seemed to do all year, 17-7.
The Bulldogs shot just 33.8 percent from the field, and went 4-for-20 from three-point range.
Coach and player reaction
Butler head coach Chris Holtmann attributed McDermott’s defensive game planning to the nail biting contest.
“They defensively game planned really well and we anticipated that they would not play certain guys and really pack the paint, and they did that and really made it difficult,” Holtmann said.
Holtmann said they didn’t expect anything different – this is a Big East game, after all.
“(Playing in the Big East) you keep bottles of Tums nearby,” Holtmann said.
McDermott’s son Doug, the 2014 Naismith Trophy winner, graduated last year, along with three other starters, leaving the Bluejays in a rebuilding year. McDermott said despite the eight game losing streak, he’s proud of the way his team has played during that stretch.
“It’s difficult when you’re in the situation we’re in to bring passion and effort on a daily basis to the game,” McDermott said, “and this group has continued to do that. If you’re going to play Butler, you better be tough.”
During the Bluejays’ skid, they’ve lost two games on three-pointers with under 15 seconds to play. They also rallied from down 14 points against North Texas with under five minutes to play, only to lose by four.
Add Butler’s late rally to the list of excruciating losses for Creighton. McDermott said he’s having fun doing what he’s doing, though.
“There are teams across the country that are having a great deal of success, that aren’t having as much fun coaching their team as I am,” McDermott said. “And that’s a testament to the character of the guys in our locker room.”
While a win, is in fact a win, Holtmann said they’ll take the close call as a learning experience.
“There’s a lot we can learn from this,” Holtmann said. “We need to learn from it, and I’d rather learn from a win.
“We felt like, in this game, our strengths needed to be our strengths – offensive rebounding, defensively we needed to be good, we turned them over at a high rate – and I felt like if we could make some shots, we’d have a real chance of playing well, now the only component we didn’t do, is we didn’t make shots.”
Senior Kameron Woods said one of the big reasons the Bulldogs are getting close wins, as compared to last year’s team that lost many close Big East games, is in part that they’re focusing on every possession.
“A lot of guys on this team who play minutes were a part of those close losses last year,” Woods said. “One of the bigger things is that we have Rose (Jones) back, and we all know what he can do on the floor.
“It doesn’t even have to be statistically. His swagger on the floor gives us confidence at all times – late game, early game – it doesn’t matter, he gives us a lot of confidence on the floor,” Woods said.
He finished with 12 points and five rebounds. Woods said his team now has the experience in those games, which is a big factor behind this season’s success.
“I don’t want to say we’re used to it, but we just kind of carry ourselves a little bit differently because we’ve been a part of these games,” Woods said. “And I don’t want to say we expect it, but when it comes down to it, I think we trust each other a lot more, and we know that we’re capable of getting stops when we need to, and we know that we’re capable of making the plays that we need to, to win games.”
Looking ahead – a Big East overview
The Bulldogs now sit just one game behind Georgetown in the Big East standings, a team they’ve split two games with this season and face at Hinkle Fieldhouse one more time.
Next on the docket for Butler is Seton Hall on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. The Bulldogs won yet another close conference game against the Pirates (13-4,3-2) on Jan. 13 in Newark, N.J. The Bulldogs came out on top 79-75 in overtime after blowing an eight-point lead late in the game.
Butler is 3-1 all-time against Seton Hall, all games which were played within the last year. Butler won two regular season meetings against the Pirates last year before falling 51-50 in the first round of the Big East Tournament.
The Pirates host the DePaul Blue Demons Thursday night, and with a win could be tied with Butler heading into Sunday’s game.
First place Georgetown hosts DePaul on Saturday, while Villanova who is also near the top of the log-jammed standings hosts Creighton on Sunday.