INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—A.J. Graves reacted to the changing defenses like a master, and his undersized teammates proved they could get physical when they had to.
The combination was too much for Evansville on Friday night.
Graves scored 22 points, Mike Green added 16 and No. 16 Butler outrebounded an opponent for only the fourth time in 13 games in a 76-65 victory over the Aces.
“This team wasn’t going to beat themselves and we had to play well and find a way to win,” Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. “We just found a way to win.”
It was typical Butler basketball.
The Bulldogs (12-1) opened up the inside by going 5-of-11 on 3-pointers in the first half. Then when Evansville (8-4) tried to force mistakes with its zone defenses and traps, Graves simply dribbled around and through the Aces to find open teammates.
The Bulldogs exploited the inside, outscoring Evansville 18-6 on second-chance points in the final 20 minutes, and never gave the Aces a chance to recover.
Butler has won 15 straight at home.
Evansville, which had won four straight overall coming into the game, has lost four in a row in the 112-game series.
Jason Holsinger led four Evansville players in double figures with 17 points while Matt Webster, the Missouri Valley Conference’s No. 2 scorer, finished with 13 points and two rebounds before fouling out.
“They deserved to win because they were better than us,” Evansville coach Steve Merfeld said. “The second-chance points destroyed us.”
But the Bulldogs’ resilience proved decisive.
Graves took only 10 shots and relied on precision passing to create openings for others, like Brandon Crone.
Crone, who was only 2-of-13 from the field last week against Purdue and was shooting 35.7 percent this season, played his most complete game of the season. He finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, and was 3-of-4 on 3-pointers in the first half.
“I’ve been working quite a bit on my shot because I’ve been shooting about three different shots,” he said. “So I’m trying to get down one shot and one form.”
When Graves and Crone weren’t doing the damage, Green was. He was 6-of-10 from the field and had eight assists and three rebounds.
Butler dominated the boards with 15 offensive rebounds and a 34-22 overall advantage and continued to improve on its image as the nation’s most careful team. They committed only eight turnovers, less than its national leading average of 10.1.
“They wanted to trap us, especially me,” Graves said. “I thought we did a good job with it, scrambling a few times, and we got the ball to the right men.”
Evansville wanted to hasten the tempo, hoping to force Butler into miscues.
Instead, the Aces got a lesson in what Butler does best—adjust.
“A.J. was the difference,” Merfeld said. “We were afraid that when we’d trap him, he’d keep his dribble alive. He’s really an old-school type of player.”
Evansville made it tough early, breaking to an 11-8 lead in the opening minutes until Graves and Crone hit consecutive 3-pointers. That sparked a 10-0 run that gave the Bulldogs an 18-11 lead and Evansville never led again.
The Aces did close to 28-23 late in the half, but Graves’ 3 in the final minute pushed the halftime lead to 37-30 and the Bulldogs wasted no time taking control in the second half.
Green drove in for a layup, then stole the ball on Evansville’s next possession and dribbled the length of the floor for a nifty left-handed layup and drawing a foul. When he completed the three-point play, Butler led 45-33 with 17:11 left.
“I thought they took control when we didn’t go inside, and we were never able to get it back to where it was uncomfortable for them,” Merfeld said.
Instead, Merfeld complicated things.
After the Aces closed to 49-43, the Evansville coach drew a technical foul with 11:18 left and Butler scored four straight points to make it 56-43.
The Aces got within six twice in the final four minutes, but the Bulldogs scored five points in one trip to seal the victory.
“We did what we needed to do,” Lickliter said. “We’re finding different ways to win. These guys have embraced that and they understand it.”