March 7, 2009

No. 22 Butler Outlasts Wright State, 62-57

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Matt Howard showed off all the skills that made him the Horizon League player of the year.

He scores points, grabs rebounds, sets up teammates for shots, draws fouls and even makes free throws. He also provides another option when No. 22 Butler's usually reliable 3-pointers are off.

The 6-foot-8 sophomore dominated the middle against Wright State, finishing with 24 points and six rebounds, helping the regular-season league champs reach Tuesday night's tournament championship game after hanging on for a 62-57 semifinal victory.

Howard clinched it with two free throws with 5.2 seconds left. He has scored 20 or more point in four of the last six games.

"I think Matt has probably changed that a little bit," Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said of his team's longtime penchant for relying on 3-pointers. "When you have a guy like that in the interior, it changes things."

Inside an unusually warm Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Bulldogs needed a post presence more than ever.

Butler, which averaged a league-high 8.3 3s per game during the regular-season, made only 4-of-16 against the Raiders - perfectly employing the game plan installed by Wright State coach Brad Brownell.

Wright State had two chances to tie the score in the final 30 seconds. Both 3-pointers missed.

The other problem: Brownell expected a better defensive effort against Howard, who was 5-of-11 from the field and 14-of-15 from the free-throw line.

But making adjustments has always been a trademark of Butler's success, and they changed it up Saturday by running the offense through Howard.

"They're very good at finding out what they have to do to win each night," Brownell said. "That's why they're so tough and ranked in the Top 25."

Butler (26-4) tied Detroit's all-time record for tournament victories (26) and if they break that mark Tuesday night at home, against either Wisconsin-Green Bay or Cleveland State, the Bulldogs will achieve yet another conference feat - tying the mark for most tourney titles. Xavier won six postseason crowns before leaving the conference.

A bigger question for Butler may be the health of starting guard Shelvin Mack. The freshman limped off the court with 10.6 seconds to go, then needed help to get to the locker room with what appeared to be a leg injury. Afterward, Stevens said Mack was suffering from leg cramps and needed intravenous fluids and believes Mack will be ready to play.

Getting to the title game was more challenging than most expected, except for Stevens.

Wright State, the No. 3 seed, has been Butler's biggest nemesis in recent years. It even upset the Bulldogs in the tourney championship on the Raiders home court two years ago, and they nearly did it again Saturday.

"I knew it would be like that from the moment they won last night (Friday)," Stevens said. "There have been some great games with them, it's always been that way, great games."

The Raiders (20-13) were led by Cory Cooperwood with 11 points and Will Graham with 10.

And they fought valiantly after falling into an early 12-3 hole. Wright State rallied twice to take the lead in the first half and trailed just 32-28 at halftime. They closed the gap again to 39-38 early in the second half, but the Bulldogs responded with one of those familiar scoring flurries - thanks in part to Howard.

His 4-foot baby hook started a 14-4 run during which Wright State committed three straight turnovers. Mack finished it with a 3-pointer from the right wing with 7:56 left to give Butler a seemingly safe 53-42 lead.

Then Troy Tabler hit a 3 and Cooperwood completed a three-point play to get the Raiders within 53-48.

They just couldn't get closer than five until N'Gai Evans hit a 3 from the top of the key with 1:10 to go. That made it 59-56.

But with a chance to tie it, Evans missed a long 3, and after Wright State got the rebound and called timeout, Todd Brown missed a 3 from the right corner.

Butler closed it out with free throws, the final two by Howard.

"I'm just down there trying to battle, not wrestle too much, and pick up stupid fouls," Howard said. "I'm still trying to play to the level of physicality, too, but just looking for my spots."