By GREG MENGELT
LEXINGTON, Ky. —
Butler appears to have a little March magic left in it.
There aren’t many Bulldogs left from the back-to-back national finalist teams of 2010 and 2011, but Thursday’s 68-56 second-round victory over Bucknell in the NCAA tournament felt a little familiar.
Butler closed the on a 37-19 run to improve to 11-2 in its last three tournament appearances. Coach Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs teams are now 12-4 all-time in the tourney.
“This truly is a Butler team, which I feel really good about,” Stevens said of his 27-8 squad. “They have some mettle, some intestinal fortitude that is built up over time.”
After struggling for most of the afternoon, senior Rotnei Clarke finished with a Butler-best 17 points, including a big 22-foot 3-pointer while falling down that gave the Bulldogs a 56-45 lead with 1:40 left in regulation.
“It was just a good feeling because it extended the lead a little,” Clarke said. “We knew if we had a couple more stops, it could seal the game.”
The Arkansas transfer, who was playing in his first NCAA tournament game, scored 13 of his 17 points in the final 8:40 and he capped an 8-0 run that took the Bulldogs from 37-31 down into a 39-37 lead midway through the second half.
“I just feel extremely blessed to be able to play in the tournament. That’s why I made the decision to come to Butler,” he said. “I knew I would have the opportunity to play in a lot of big games and a lot of huge atmospheres. This is as big as it gets. Just excited to be here.”
As Butler fans know, it does get bigger.
The sixth-seeded Bulldogs will face three-seed Marquette, which beat Davidson with a stunning 59-58 come-from-behind victory, in Saturday’s third round at Rupp Arena.
Andrew Smith — one of only two Bulldogs with significant NCAA tournament experience — added 14 points and a career-high 16 rebounds and helped slow two-time Patriot League Player of the Year Mike Muscala, whose nine points was 10 below his average.
“[Smith is] a very good post defender,” Muscala said. “You know, I tried to be aggressive. I thought I had some decent looks, [but] he did a really good job of being physical with me.”
“I think Muscala is terrific,” Stevens said. “But, you know, I think Andrew Smith is terrific, too.”
Butler’s Roosevelt Jones finished with 14 points, five rebounds and four assists, while Alex Barlow contributed 10 points and five boards to the Bulldogs’ cause.
“He was really good,” Stevens said of Jones. “Rosy is an interesting offensive player because he doesn’t shoot jump shots — ever — and he’s great at floaters. He’s obviously able to score in the post.”
Bucknell’s Joe Willman, who had a game-high 20 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field, hit a deep 2-pointer with 10:08 left that gave the Bison (28-6) a 37-31 lead.
After that, it was all Butler.
Freshman Kellen Dunham sparked the game-determining run with a pair of free throws before Smith hit a 3 out of the corner off of an inbounds play and Clarke hit his first 3-pointer of the contest to recapture the lead for the Bulldogs with 8:40 remaining.
“Smith hit a big 3 and that kind of settled us down,” Stevens said.
Following a Ryan Frazier three-point play that temporarily switched the advantage back to the Bison, a Smith hook shot gave Butler the lead for good at 41-40 with 7:46 left.
A Jones drive with 5:47 left gave the Bulldogs a 45-42 lead and kick-started a 10-0 run. If that run didn’t put Bucknell away, Clarke’s 3 one minute later certainly did.
“We’ve got to give a lot of credit to Butler,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “We made our run in the second half and they came up with the big plays down the stretch. They don’t get rattled. We made a great run, but they’re going to come back.”
Both teams struggled to put the ball in the basket in the opening half of the game. The Bulldogs knocked down just nine of their 28 field-goal attempts and still led 21-14 at the half.
“It may not have been an aesthetic game the entire game,” Stevens admitted. “But our defense was really good in the first half. It took us awhile to get comfortable offensively.”
No Bulldog struggled more in the first half than Clarke, who was 2-for-8 and missed all four of his 3-point shots. Butler missed its first 13 shots from behind the 3-point arc.
“I have a lot of support from the coaching staff and my teammates,” Clarke said. “They continued to tell me to shoot the ball, and when you can play free and have no worries, it feels pretty good.”
Clarke’s first-half struggles were nothing compared to Muscala, who scored the first bucket of the contest — an 18-footer 20 seconds in — before missing his next nine shots.
“We were really good today [on defense],” Jones said. “Today we didn’t shoot well, but luckily our defense bailed us out.”
All-Patriot guard Bryson Johnson, who averages 11.1 points per game, spent much of the afternoon on the bench in foul trouble. The senior only took one shot in the first half and missed before scoring nine points in the final 2 minutes and 14 seconds of the contest.
Jones broke a 6-6 tie with a three-point play then hit a runner in the lane to give Butler an 11-6 advantage. Jones scored seven of the Bulldogs’ first 11 points.
Willman’s fourth bucket of the game cut the Butler advantage to 15-12 before an offensive putback by Jones and a steal and bucket from Barlow gave the Bulldogs their largest lead at 19-12. Clarke responded to a 14-footer by Bucknell’s Steven Kaspar with a deep 2 with 58 seconds left to close the first-half scoring.
Khyle Marshall scored five early second-half points and the Butler lead ballooned to 29-18 lead with 16:27 to play. However, Bucknell answered with eight straight points in less than a minute to trim the deficit to 29-26 with 15:10 remaining and force a Bulldog timeout.
After the timeout, a Jones fast-break drive pushed the Butler lead back to five. But the Bison responded again, this time with an 11-0 spurt that gave them a 37-31 lead. Willman scored six of the 11 points — on 3-of-3 shooting — and Bucknell had tallied 23 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half after only 14 in the entire first.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” Smith said of the Bison. “Fortunately, we were able to fight back. Being in big games and having four years of experience definitely helps.”