Butler thumps South Alabama to earn tournament showdown with Tennessee
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP)—Memo to the NCAA selection committee: Butler can play.
Saddled with a seventh seed despite being ranked 11th in the nation, the Bulldogs beat South Alabama 81-61 Friday in the first round of the East Regional. Pete Campbell put on a 3-point shooting show with 26 points and Butler left little doubt it belongs in the conversation about college basketball’s top teams with its school-record 30th win.
Campbell hit eight of Butler’s 15 3-pointers, including a buzzer-beater that gave the Bulldogs a 47-30 halftime lead and left the Jaguars’ heads hanging as they walked to the locker room.
“I thought we were on their shooters a lot of the time and they just buried them,” South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow said. “And buried them and buried them and buried them.”
It was the fourth straight time Butler (30-3) has advanced past the first round, but the first time with 31-year-old coach Brad Stevens at the helm. One more win and the third-youngest coach to reach 30 wins can match his age.
“It doesn’t mean a whole lot to me from a personal standpoint, but it means a lot to me from a team ego standpoint,” the baby-faced Stevens said.
Butler played like a contender and enhanced its reputation as the only major mid-major on the same day Drake and Gonzaga made quick exits from the tournament.
It was a statement game, less than a week after the Bulldogs were given what they considered a disappointing seeding. To make things worse, Butler was a popular first-round upset on many tournament brackets against the 10th-seeded Jaguars (26-7), who couldn’t live up to a much-criticized at-large bid.
Butler advanced to play seemingly vulnerable second-seeded Tennessee after the Volunteers slipped past American’s upset bid with a 72-57 victory earlier in the day.
The Bulldogs beat the Volunteers 56-44 early last season.
“The team is fabulous,” Stevens said. “If they’re a 2-seed, there are four pretty good teams out there that are 1-seeds. We’ll have to be at our very best on Sunday to compete.”
All anyone wanted to talk about before the game was the matchup of starting guards, and A.J. Graves of Butler and South Alabama’s Daon Merritt didn’t disappoint. Graves had 18 points and Merritt, who kept the Jaguars in the game early, scored 14.
But by the end of the first half, the Bulldogs’ starting frontcourt had wrested the attention from the small guys and the game from the Jaguars, building a 47-30 lead.
Campbell, a 44 percent 3-point shooter, hit six 3s in the first half and was 8-for-10 in the game. Most came from well beyond the line after the 6-foot-7 senior had slipped his defender.
“Coach said going into the postseason for me to be ready to run a few things that we haven’t run for a while,” Campbell said. “That’s the beauty of scouting. You can take away some of the stuff that a team’s trying to do.”
Campbell and freshman Matt Howard, a 6-8 center who tirelessly set high screens and laid his body on any blue jersey within reach, accounted for every point in a 17-3 run that put the Bulldogs ahead 39-26 with 2:32 left in the first half.
Campbell had 11 points during the run, while Howard scored four and had an assist on the only other basket in the spurt. The duo was also disruptive in the paint, where the Jaguars found every shot contested by a team that allows 57.8 points per game, fifth in the nation.
It was clear the resurgent Jaguars were done by halftime, and Arrow’s distress was visible early in the second half as Butler beat South Alabama to loose balls and continued to hit 3s.
Butler finished 15-of-28 from beyond the arc, surpassing 50 percent from long range for the fourth time this season.
“I think I said, ‘Good pass,’ one time and (Graves) was like, ‘I’m going to keep looking for you, because you’ve been open a few times,”’ Campbell said.
“I kept saying the same thing. He just kept telling me to get open.”