After leaving the court at Hinkle Fieldhouse to a standing ovation in their regular-season game, it seems only fitting the seniors from Butler would get a chance to provide an encore by winning the Horizon League tournament that has eluded them the last two years.
The 14th-ranked Bulldogs look to take their first step towards that title on Saturday when they host Illinois-Chicago in the semifinals.
Butler (27-3) has been idle since a 65-31 rout of Detroit on March 1. Pete Campbell hit a career-high eight 3-pointers and finished with 24 points, while Mike Green finished an assist shy of a triple-double despite playing only 28 minutes.
“(Gaining momentum was) something we definitely talked about,” Campbell said. “We didn’t want to come out, lay an egg and then have to think about it for a whole week (before) the conference tournament. We looked at it as a challenge.”
Along with A.J. Graves, Julian Betko and Drew Streicher, the quintet has been part of a special season that set a Horizon League record with 16 victories and single-season school record with 27 regular-season wins. But a conference tournament title has been conspicuously absent from that list of achievements for this group, which is trying to end Butler’s conference tournament title drought that dates to 2001, when the Horizon League was known as the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.
Butler has reached the Horizon League final each of the last two seasons, but suffered road losses at Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2006 and at Wright State last year. This year, though, the Bulldogs have the advantage of playing at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where they went 9-0 versus conference opponents and were 12-1 overall.
The fans “always help when they’re being supportive,” said Campbell, who is shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range. “It’s like another guy on the court, that’s why you love playing at home.”
Illinois-Chicago (18-14), the fourth seed, advanced to the semifinals with a 60-49 victory over No. 8 seed Loyola of Chicago. Josh Mayo scored 12 of his 17 points in the second half for the Flames, who won the game by going 20-for-20 from the foul line in the last 20 minutes and outrebounding the Ramblers 36-20 overall to overcome 36.2 percent shooting.
This will be the third game in three days for Illinois-Chicago, which will again lean on its defense. The Flames have held three straight opponents under 40 percent shooting, winning all three, and are 12-3 when hitting that benchmark.
But one of those losses came in a 51-46 setback at home to Butler on Feb. 20 in which neither team shot better than 38 percent. Campbell and Graves each made four 3-pointers as the Bulldogs went 13-for-37 from beyond the arc, while Mayo had 15 points for the Flames, who were 2 of 14 from 3-point range.
The winner of this game will play the winner of No. 2 seed Cleveland State and sixth-seeded Valparaiso in the tournament final on Tuesday.