Howard leads No. 16 Butler past Phoenix 68-59

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Matt Howard and Willie Veasley spent the first half watching their Butler teammates struggle.

In the second half, the Bulldogs’ top players relied on their coaching skills to get things righted for Butler.

The duo choreographed two scoring flurries and pumped enough energy into the sluggish 16th-ranked Bulldogs to rally for a 68-59 victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay on Thursday night.

“I just thought we had to get a little better ball movement,” said Howard, the sophomore. “We knew we had to get into the lane and kick and make shots. But that’s something we really stressed (at halftime), ball movement.”

Normally, that’s not a problem for Butler.

Then again, Thursday was one of those off nights.

With the inexperienced Bulldogs—they start three freshmen with Howard and Veasley—fighting to stay in first place and achieve a school milestone, Butler appeared tight. Losing Howard and Veasley to foul trouble in the first 12 minutes didn’t help, either.

Butler’s shots were off, sometimes way off. Green Bay’s defense limited the Bulldogs to not-so-open looks and took away some of Butler’s traditional passing tricks, too. And playing without Howard and Veasley meant the Bulldogs had no inside presence.

By halftime, Howard and Veasley, a junior, had seen enough.

Veasley delivered a rare alley-oop slam dunk early in the second half to get things rolling, then Howard exploited Green Bay’s second-half foul trouble to put them away.

Howard finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, while Veasley, who drew two fouls in the first 18 seconds, added nine points including five during the first 7-0 run that gave Butler the lead.

The two-man tandem led Butler to its ninth straight victory overall, its ninth in a row over the Phoenix and the first 17-1 mark in school history. The Bulldogs are also 8-0 in conference play and have won 19 straight against Horizon League foes—achievements second-year coach Brad Stevens downplayed with another contest Saturday.

“I’ll take one minute and say that’s great, that’s why you coach, that’s why you play the game,” Stevens said. “It happened because we’ve gone game-by-game and if we lose that focus, we won’t be 17-1 for very long.”

Green Bay (14-6, 6-2) had a chance to prevent history.

Rahmon Fletcher finished with 22 points and Troy Cotton had 13 to lead the Phoenix, who limited Butler to just 7-of-25 shooting in the first half.

Howard and Veasley, with a little help from their teammates, made sure that wouldn’t be enough after the Phoenix took a 25-22 halftime lead.

“I’d like to think Green Bay’s defense had a lot to do with that, and I thought their defense affected us, too,” Green Bay coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Could we have expanded the lead? Maybe.”

It proved a costly mistake.

After Fletcher opened the half by curling around for layups from the left side on four straight possessions to give Green Bay a 33-27 lead, Veasley provided the spark Butler needed.

He started the first spurt by making two free throws, then finished it with a long 3 to give Butler a 34-33 lead with 13:11 to go.

“When he (Veasley) is making shots, it’s really a big boost for us,” Howard said. “It’s tough for him, and us, when he’s on the bench.”

Green Bay’s Terry Evans answered by dunking a rebound, momentarily stemming the tide.

But with the Phoenix in foul trouble, Butler continued to pitch the ball down to Howard, who repeatedly spun away for layups, short jumpers or drew fouls. And during one three-minute stretch, Howard scored seven straight points to give the Bulldogs a 41-35 lead with 9:54 left. Green Bay never got closer than five the rest of the night.

“We were playing with a lineup that hadn’t played very together (in the first half),” Stevens said. “But we gutted it out. Willie gave us a shot in the arm when we really needed him, and Matt played well down the stretch.”

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Wis. Green Bay
Rahmon Fletcher Rahmon Fletcher
9-18,  22 Pts
3 Rebs, 4 Assists
 Butler
Shelvin Mack Shelvin Mack
4-7,  11 Pts
5 Rebs, 8 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists

Conference Scoreboard

Thursday, Jan 22