INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Southern Illinois’ Jamaal Tatum won the personal battle with Butler’s A.J. Graves—and the bigger one, too.
As two of the nation’s premier mid-major guards went head-to-head, it was Tatum who hit the bigger shots and the key free throws Saturday to help the 16th-ranked Salukis pull off their first road win over a ranked opponent in more than three decades—68-64 over No. 13 Butler.
“Somebody had to lose today, and that’s the way it went,” Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. “What you saw today were two teams that battled, two teams that made plays for 40 minutes.”
Southern Illinois (23-5) simply made more when it mattered most, and Tatum was the primary reason. He finished with 20 points and made 8-of-11 free throws, most coming after he got into foul trouble as Butler rallied from a 10-point deficit midway through the second half.
The supporting role fell to Matt Shaw, who was nearly perfect shooting. He made all four of his shots, including three 3-pointers, and was 4-of-6 on free throws. He finished with 15 points and six rebounds.
Coupled with a defense that lived up to its No. 3 national ranking, the Salukis extended their winning streak to nine games and ended a road drought that dated to December 1975, when they upset then No. 16 Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Butler shot 40.9 percent from the field and 39.1 percent on 3-pointers.
“We don’t set out to stop one person, we try to guard everybody,” Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery said. “They seem to know who’s who, and sometimes we handle some players better than others.”
Graves, the MVP of the NIT Season Tip-Off and Butler’s top scorer, found himself trapped.
Playing through a stomach ailment that briefly forced him out of the game in the first half, he never really looked like himself. Graves was 1-of-8 from the field, 1-of-5 on 3-pointers, and missed only his fifth free throw of the season in 118 attempts as he scored a season-low five points.
With Graves struggling, the Bulldogs relied on other scorers. Mike Green finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, backup swingman Pete Campbell hit five 3s and had 17 points, and Brandon Crone had 13 points and four rebounds.
But it wasn’t enough to keep Butler’s 22-game home winning streak intact or prevent the Bulldogs’ second loss in three games, this one in front of a national television audience just three weeks before the NCAA tournament draw.
“I don’t think we have anything to be ashamed of today,” Lickliter said. “They were a little better than us, and we’d like to play them again—maybe in Atlanta.”
Still, it was mid-major basketball at its finest.
The Bulldogs committed only six turnovers against a suffocating defense, while the Salukis sealed the outcome by making 27 of 37 free throws and outrebounding the smaller Bulldogs 33-24.
A large contingent of Saluki fans made the four-hour trip from Carbondale, Ill., and, at times, were louder than Butler’s supporters as the teams often looked more like those from the movie “Hoosiers”—part of which was filmed at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
They passed the ball meticulously, worked the clocked methodically and accepted the result gracefully.
“I can’t imagine a better, more hard-fought game this season than what you saw today,” Lickliter said. “These two teams share the basketball, and it’s difficult. I guess it tests you.”
While it wasn’t easy, Southern Illinois maintained control most of the game, never trailing in the final 26 minutes after using a 7-0 run late in the first half to take a 24-18 lead.
The Salukis extended the margin to 45-35 midway through the second half, courtesy of a 6-0 run.
Then Campbell shot Butler right back into the game by hitting 3-pointers on two straight possessions, and Willie Veasley followed that by making one of two free throws to cut the lead to 50-48 with 6:30 left.
Southern Illinois led 60-52 before Butler charged back again, closing to 63-60 on Brandon Crone’s 3-pointer with 1:28 left. Crone could have cut it to one with a layup late in the game, but it rolled off the side of the rim and the Salukis closed it out by making five of six free throws in the final 32 seconds.
“When you have a player like A.J., it’s always a personal challenge to go out and stop that player from doing what he does,” Salukis guard Tony Young said. “That’s really how we play. We try to stop everybody.”