Sophomore Matt Howard scored a game-high 17 points and turned in two of the biggest plays of the game down the stretch to lead Butler to a 57-53 come-from-behind victory over visiting Northwestern in a non-league game at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Wednesday (Nov. 26). The gritty victory was Butler's fourth straight to open the 2008-09 season.
With Butler holding a three-point lead, 50-47, in the closing minutes, Howard came up with a steal at mid-court and drove the length of the floor to put the Bulldogs up by five. But Northwestern (3-1) answered with four straight points to make it 52-51 with 1:09 to play.
Thirty-six seconds later, Howard rebounded a missed three-point attempt by teammate Gordon Hayward and scored to put Butler back on top by three and Northwestern never got closer. Hayward hit a pair of free throws with 0:14 left, and after Michael Thompson hit two free throws for the Wildcats, freshman Shelvin Mack closed with scoring and the victory with a single charity toss.
"It's a win you're excited about because not everything went our way and we had to deal with adversity and we came back and made enough plays to win against what I think is a very good team and an extremely hard team to play against early in the season," said Butler head coach Brad Stevens after the game.
The Bulldogs found themselves chasing Northwestern for most of the first half. The Big Ten foe ran its precision offense to perfection and built as much as a 12-point lead behind 68% shooting from the field, including 67% from beyond the three-point arc. A pair of free throws by junior Willie Veasley with 0:05 on the clock left the Bulldogs trailing, 36-27, at intermission.
"(Northwestern's offense) is so different and so unique and it takes a little time to get used to," said Stevens of his team's first half struggles. "You can prepare for it, but until you get out there with the guy driving it at you and the guy can really shoot it, and the speed at which they cut, you can't simulate that in practice."
"I thought we did a great job of guarding in the second half," added the Butler coach.
Veasley, in particular, responded to a difficult defensive challenge. He was assigned to guard Northwestern's honorable mention All-Big Ten forward, Kevin Coble, and he limited the 6-7 junior to just three points on a single field goal.
Butler fell behind by 11 points, 38-27, early in the second half, but then unleashed a 9-0 scoring run to cut the margin to two points, 38-36, on a basket by Veasley. Back-to-back three-point field goals by Avery Jukes and Hayward gave Butler it's first lead of the second half at 43-42, with 7:10 remaining. The game was tied at 47-47 when freshman Ronald Nored made a layup to give Butler the lead for good with three minutes remaining.
Hayward finished with 13 points and six rebounds, sharing rebounding honors with Howard. Veasley added 10 points. Thompson scored 12 points to top the Wildcats, while Craig Moore and Ivan Peljusic each finished with 11.
The Bulldogs will close out their four-game homestand on Saturday, Nov. 29, against state foe Evansville. That contest is slated for 2 p.m. (ET) at Hinkle Fieldhouse.