MILWAUKEE (AP)—The only numbers on the stat sheet Butler coach Todd Lickliter admired were the final score.
“It comes to mind that only one stat matters, and that’s somehow, we scored more points at the end,” Lickliter said Saturday night after his 15th-ranked Bulldogs narrowly avoided an upset by beating Wisconsin-Milwaukee 55-50.
Lickliter could only shake his head at some unusually bad stats for his club.
Although the Bulldogs are leading Division I with only 9.9 turnovers a game, they had 15. Butler also shot poorly, hitting 14 of 41 field goals (34.1 percent) in a tight defensive battle in which Milwaukee was also off target going 16-of-40 (40 percent).
“We just struggled at the skill aspects of the game,” Lickliter said including his team going 1-of-10 from 3-point range. “They defended well. It was very difficult.”
The Bulldogs (13-1, 2-0 Horizon League), whose only loss was to Indiana State, won their third straight game.
Avery Smith had 21 points and Paige Paulsen added 17 for the Panthers (3-12, 0-2), who won the Horizon League regular season title the last three seasons. They are off to their worst start since 1997-98 when they lost 15 of their first 16 games.
Panthers coach Rob Jeter said he believed Butler’s superior poise and execution in the final minutes were the difference.
“Their ability to stay focused on both ends of the floor I thought was the difference down the stretch,” Jeter said.
He also felt Butler’s free throw superiority played a role as Butler, the second-best free throw shooting team in Division I, went 26-of-37 to 14-of-27 for Milwaukee.
After Paulsen tied the score for the seventh time in the second half at 40 with a free throw, Drew Streicher hit two straight baskets to put the Bulldogs ahead 44-40.
Streicher only took three shots in the game but he made two when he decided he had to do something to help his team win.
“We just needed a basket and I had to be a little more assertive. I just wanted to do my job,” he said.
Lickliter joked about Streicher’s heroics.
“The coach finally figured it out, after about 38 minutes, to run some plays to him,” he said with a laugh.
Paulsen scored with 1:16 to narrow the lead to 47-45, but Green made two free throws with 52 seconds left to extend it to 49-45 and the Bulldogs hung on for the victory.
Paulsen and Smith both missed key free throws down the stretch.
“We had an opportunity to step up there and make ‘em. We didn’t do it tonight,” Paulsen said.
Butler scored the last eight points of the first half to tie the game 19-19.
After Milwaukee went ahead 19-11 on a basket by Ricky Franklin with 4:38 left, Butler finally got its offense untracked. Brandon Crone had two baskets in the run and Brian Ligon tied the game at 19 with a free throw with 51 seconds left.
Graves become the 31st player in Butler history with 1,000 points. He has 1,004.
Butler missed its first four shots and did have a field goal until Green finally connected with 13:17 remaining for a 5-4 lead. Both teams shot poorly in the first half: Butler at 35.3 percent (6-of-17) and Milwaukee at 33.3 percent (7-of-21).
Butler, which was leading Division I with only 9.9 turnovers a game, had 15 but forced Milwaukee into 17.
The Panthers had beaten the Bulldogs six straight times in Milwaukee including the championship games of the 2003 and 2006 Horizon League tournaments. The last time Butler won in Milwaukee—71-56 on Feb. 9,1998— current Butler assistant coaches Matthew Graves and LaVall Jordan were playing for the Bulldogs. Graves is A.J.’s brother.
The Panthers’ only other game against a ranked opponent this season was a 68-49 loss to state rival Wisconsin, which was No. 7 at the time.