Butler wins Horizon League title, automatic NCAA tourney bid
INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Just getting into the NCAA tournament isn’t a big deal for Butler anymore.
“We’ve done a lot so far, but we want more,” guard Mike Green said.
Green matched his career high with 24 points Tuesday night, leading the No. 12 Bulldogs to 70-55 victory against Cleveland State in the Horizon League tournament championship. Butler earned an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. The Bulldogs have made the tournament as an at-large team twice since, but waiting for the selection committee to make up its mind isn’t as much fun as getting into the field of 65 like this.
“This is what it’s all about,” guard Mike Green said.
Butler (29-3) blew a 14-point lead in the first half but pulled away again midway through the second half and took control with a 17-3 run while a key Cleveland State player was out with an ankle injury.
“We stuck to our game plan,” Green said. “We’ve been here before. We took everything they could throw at us, and we had the experience to carry it off.”
The Bulldogs took a 60-44 lead with six minutes to go on consecutive 3-pointers by Drew Streicher and reserve Zach Hahn.
J’Nathan Bullock, who led Cleveland State (21-12) with 21 points, scored the next five for the Vikings, but they never came closer than 13 points the rest of the game.
Matt Howard added 16 points and Streicher scored a season-high 11 for the Bulldogs.
“We did a much better job in the second half,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “We weren’t very good in the first half. They did a good job, and we needed to match that intensity in the second half.”
The Bulldogs lost in the regional final last year to eventual NCAA champion Florida.
Cleveland State, which split a pair of close games with Butler in the regular season this year, came in as the Horizon’s No. 2 seed behind the top-seeded Bulldogs and reached the championship game for the first time. The loss left the Vikings on the NCAA bubble, however, still needing help from the selection committee on Sunday to make their first tournament appearance since 1986.
An NIT selection is more likely, coach Gary Waters said.
“If we go to the NCAA, God is really shining on us,” he said.
Waters said the Vikings came in thinking they could beat Butler.
“We’ve still got a lot more basketball to play,” he said.
“I told our guys to keep their heads up. One game doesn’t change your whole season.”
Everything went Butler’s way the first seven minutes and again for the last seven.
Helped by repeated turnovers by Cleveland State, Butler took a 7-0 lead, widened it to 14-4 on a 3-pointer by A.J. Graves and took its biggest lead of the first half at 20-6 with consecutive 3-point baskets by Pete Campbell and Streicher.
The Vikings held the Bulldogs to two baskets and six free throws over the next nine minutes, however, and pulled within 30-29 on a rebound basket by Cedrick Jackson. Butler built the lead back to five, but Bullock hit one of two free throws, Joe Davis scored and Jackson hit two foul shots to tie the game for the only time at 34.
Two free throws apiece by Green and Graves gave the Bulldogs a 38-34 lead at halftime.
The Vikings played most of the second half without Jackson, who re-injured his left ankle and left early in the final period.
Waters said that was the turning point.
“When you lose a player like that, it really hurts you. … If Green would go down in the second half, what would happen to Butler? It took us a while to regroup.”
Cleveland State came within 43-41, but a basket by Howard and two straight by reserve Willie Veasley started Butler’s decisive 17-3 surge. Cleveland State never recovered.
Green, the league’s Most Valuable Player for the season, was also named tournament MVP.