Butler took another step toward its first Horizon League tournament title since 2001 over the weekend. On Tuesday, the Bulldogs look to capture the championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament when they meet Wright State at the Nutter Center in Dayton, Ohio.
The No. 19 Bulldogs (27-5) have lost twice in the conference title game in the last six seasons, falling to Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2003 and ’06.
The Bulldogs, who won regular season crowns in 2002 and 2003, earned a share of the Horizon regular season title with Wright State (22-9) this season. The Raiders, however, won the tiebreaker for the tournament’s top seed by sweeping Loyola of Chicago in the season series.
Butler and Wright State will be meeting in the conference tourney for the fourth time since 1998. In the most recent tournament meeting, the Raiders knocked off the Bulldogs 61-57 in the first round March 1, 2005.
Butler earned a chance to avenge that defeat when A.J. Graves hit six foul shots in the final 53 seconds Saturday to lift the Bulldogs to a 67-66 overtime victory over Loyola.
“It was a sense of relief to put this behind us and prepare for the championship game,” said forward Brandon Crone, who led Butler starters with 17 points.
Graves, second in the nation in free-throw shooting at 95.8 percent, went 0-for-9 from the field but hit all 12 of his shots from the line.
“It was a step in the right direction,” Crone said. “We don’t want to put it in the (NCAA selection) committee’s hands.”
Butler matched a school record with its 27th win of the season. Coach Todd Lickliter, the league’s coach of the year for a second straight season, led the Bulldogs to a 27-6 mark and into the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament in 2002-03.
“It was gratifying to get a win,” Lickliter said. “It doesn’t have to be pretty - you just have to hang tough.”
Butler had to do that down the stretch of the regular season, as it alternated losses and wins in the final six games. That stretch began with a 77-65 loss at Wright State on Feb. 10.
The Bulldogs pounded the Raiders 73-42 at home Jan. 6.
Wright State won for the 10th time in 11 games Saturday, 67-51 over Wisconsin-Green Bay to reach a conference championship game for the third time in the program’s history and first since 1995. That year, it fell to Wisconsin-Green Bay in the final of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament.
Leading scorer DaShaun Wood paced the Raiders with 25 points Saturday. Wood, who averages 19.6 points per game, scored 30 in the Feb. 10 victory over Butler.
Graves, who leads the Bulldogs with 17.1 points a contest, was held to 3-for-16 shooting and 10 points in that game. Crone led Butler with 17 points.
The Bulldogs lead the series with Wright State 16-13.