Butler Beats Wisconsin, Heads Back to the Elite Eight

  • March 24, 2011, 11:46 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Matt Howard started squirming.

After looking so composed while making the clutch plays Butler needed to pull off another NCAA tournament upset, Howard seemed uncomfortable talking about his leading role in the game.

"I don't know if that's best for me to say," Howard said after his 20-point, 12 rebound performance lifted the Bulldogs to a 61-54 triumph over Wisconsin on Thursday night. "I really don't go back and evaluate that personally. I'm just really glad our team got the job done."

Indeed, Butler has been getting the job done - with Howard playing a crucial role in each tournament win. He tipped in a winning basket as time expired in Butler's opening-round win over Old Dominion, then hit the game-winning free throw in the final seconds of a one-point upset of top-seeded Pittsburgh.

No late-game heroics were required against the Badgers, largely because Howard's hustle, his rebounding and his scoring from inside and out helped the Bulldogs build a 20-point lead in the second half the proved too much for the Badgers to overcome.

"He's been outstanding the whole tournament," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "You know, when it's a one-and-done situation - he is a fighter anyway - but he is a winner. ... His play has been special."

The eighth-seeded Bulldogs (26-9) have taken down a Big East power and Big Ten bruisers, proving again they can play with anyone, especially in March. Another sure thing about these Horizon League champs: They won't have to duke it out with Duke in this year's tournament.

The top-seeded Blue Devils, who beat Butler 61-59 in last season's thrilling title game, were upset by Arizona 93-77 earlier in the evening.

"A lot of people just ignored us and said, 'Aw, they'll probably lose in the first or second round," Butler center Andrew Smith said after the Bulldogs won their 12th straight game since Feb. 5. "Here we are again, trying to prove everybody wrong. We'll try to win three more."

The 6-foot-11 Smith briefly left the game after twisting his left ankle early in the second half, but returned and finished with eight points and six rebounds in 24 minutes.

Shelvin Mack scored 13 points and Shawn Vanzant 10 for Butler, which next meets second-seeded Florida (29-7) on Saturday for a trip to what would be the Bulldogs' second straight Final Four.

"Obviously, we're thrilled to still be playing," Stevens said. "I don't think that this group goes into games not believing, and I don't think that this group came here not believing. And so we're going to see if we can't try to get one on Saturday and move on."

Jordan Taylor scored 22 points for Wisconsin (25-9), which shot 30.4 percent (17 of 56). Jon Leuer, normally one of the Badgers' top offensive forces with 18.7 points per game, was 1 of 12 shooting and finished with three points.

"We made plays that were uncharacteristic of us," Leuer said. "We tried to force some things and Butler did some good things defensively. ... They're just tough kids who are all around good players and they play to their strengths."

Butler was the aggressor from the outset, using quickness and heady play to counter Wisconsin's size advantage. The Bulldogs took a 6-5 lead on Vanzant's 3 from the corner and never trailed again.

While the Bulldogs shot 50 percent (12 of 24) in the opening 20 minutes, their defense was equally impressive. Wisconsin came in averaging only 7.5 turnovers per game, but had eight in the first half. Taylor, who entered the game with the nation's best assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.18, had one assist and two turnovers to that point.

The Badgers' shooting woes only made matters worse. They missed 15 of their first 23 shots. They also uncharacteristically missed four of their first eight free throws after coming in with a nation's best .823 free throw percentage.

Wisconsin wound up with 11 turnovers for the game and went 13 of 19 (68.4 percent) from the foul line.

Butler led 33-24 at halftime, then scored the first nine points of the second half, with Mack scoring five during the spurt, to open up a 42-24 lead.

Soon after, Howard hit one of his three 3s and Smith added a layup to make it 47-27 with 11:32 to go.

Wisconsin made one last push when Mike Bruesewitz hit a driving layup with 3:21 to go. That sparked a 9-0 run that was capped by Taylor's 3, pulling Wisconsin to 53-49 with 1:38 left.

No stranger to late-game pressure, Butler maintained its composure. Mack came off a screen and made a jumper from near the foul line, then Vanzant added a free throw to make it 56-49.

Taylor hit one last 3 with 34 seconds left to make it 56-52, but Butler made the free throws to put the game away.

"It was just kinda one of those nights. The ball just wasn't going through the hoop. It's frustrating," Taylor said. "They're scrappy and relentless. I don't know - they're just tough kids. They never quit and that's what makes them winners."

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