NEW YORK -- Fordham nearly pulled off a stunning upset after welcoming back its best player, but No. 11 Butler had some reinforcement of its own, with the center the Bulldogs called irreplaceable back in the lineup.
Guard Rotnei Clarke scored 22 points to lead Butler and Andrew Smith returned from his one-game absence to score 12 points, including four key free throws in the final minutes of the Bulldogs' 68-63 win over Fordham on Saturday at Rose Hill Gym.
Butler (21-5, 8-3 Atlantic 10) barely avoided dropping its second straight game after losing to Charlotte earlier in the week with Smith sidelined by an abdominal injury. The Bulldogs fended off the Rams (6-20, 2-9), who lost their sixth straight game, despite leading early in the second half and pulling to two points in the last minute.
Chris Gaston, who returned after missing seven straight games and 13 this season following knee surgery in November, came off the bench to lead Fordham with 21 points.
That included eight straight for the Rams at one point in the second half as the 3,200 fans in the cramped sellout crowd started screaming in anticipation of an upset. It was the second meeting in the schools' history and first since an NIT matchup at Madison Square Garden in 1959.
"It was a great win," Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the Bulldogs escaped. " ... They were very hard to beat.
"Huge," Stevens said of Smith's return after missing just one game. "We're a better team with him, there's no two ways about it."
Fordham also was a much better team than it has been recently. Gaston showed early his knee was up to the challenge and heated up in the second half as the Rams prompted their coach to tell his team to aim high in the next few games.
"I said to the guys, 'We're knocking on the door. We've gotta kick it down," Fordham coach Tom Pecora said. "I just said to them, 'After the performance we had today, why can't we go win the next five games?'"
Fordham's Mandell Thomas hit two 3-pointers in the final minute to bring Fordham within 65-63 with 18 seconds left.
But Clarke made two free throws after Fordham's Luka Zivkovic missed a tying 3-point attempt in the final seconds and Butler went on to the win.
Earlier, Smith had helped keep the Rams at Bay by hitting 4-of-4 free throws in the final minute. He said it was a challenge to return after not being active for most of the past week, but he felt good in his 30 minutes.
"Obviously, I wouldn't have been out there if I shouldn't have been," he said. "Our trainers did a great job to get me ready. I was happy to miss just the one game."
Fordham hung in with the Bulldogs in the first half, trailing 30-26 at halftime after leading 26-23 with 2:42 left when Bryan Smith made two free throws for the Rams.
But Butler, which shot only 37 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from the line in the first half, reeled off the final seven points for the four-point lead at halftime.
"Just shots not going in," Clarke, who helped limit the damage by going 4 of 6 on his 3-pointers in the first half, said of the Bulldogs' shooting struggles. "I think we executed well in our sets, got some good looks, just didn't go down."
Pecora said he tested Gaston's knee early to see how he cut. He ended up responding well and continued to build strength as the game went on.
Gaston said by the end of the game he was more focused on the lost opportunity at a huge upset than any concern about the knee.
"I was just feeling calm, just trying to get back," Gaston said. "It was a game that I felt we should have won. It was down to the wire, we had 'em on their heels and I felt we should have come out with the win."
NOTES: Butler forward Khyle Marshall was injured and on the floor for a few minutes late in the first half after being elbowed by Fordham forward Travion Leonard. Marshall eventually sat up and was helped off the court. ... Several noted broadcasters and Fordham alumni, NBA announcer Mike Breen, Yankees and ESPN announcer Michael Kay and ESPN broadcaster Ryan Ruocco, attended the game, attired in the free white T-shirts the school distributed before the game. ... The schools have little history against each other but share plenty of tradition at their respective home courts. Rose Hill Gym is the oldest on-campus venue used by an NCAA Division I basketball team. It was built in 1925, three years before Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse.