INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Butler no longer needs its best game or even its 3-point aces to beat up basketball’s big boys any more.
They can rely on defense, confidence and a new post presence.
Despite an off-night Saturday, the 16th-ranked Bulldogs allowed only 16 second-half points and got a breakout game from freshman Matt Howard to rally past Ohio State 65-46. It was the Bulldogs’ fourth straight win over a team from the traditional power conferences.
“We’ve been through it all before, last year and at the Great Alaska Shootout, so we know what it takes,” guard Mike Green said. “It’s not coming out in awe of these guys.”
The Bulldogs (7-0) tested that theory after a dismal first half in which the nation’s best 3-point shooting team missed its first 15 3s and only avoided a shutout because of A.J. Graves’ buzzer-beater that stood up to replay review at halftime.
More discouraging was the Bulldogs’ early carelessness. They entered the game averaging 9.2 turnovers but committed eight turnovers in the first 20 minutes, a stretch when their top three scorers—Green, Graves, and Pete Campbell—combined for just five points.
For another mid-major team or even a Butler team from a different year, it may have been enough to pack it in.
Not Saturday. Instead, the Bulldogs repeatedly went inside to Howard, who scored a career-high 23 points, and eventually Graves and Green rediscovered their outside touch late in the game. Green finished 15 points, all in the second half when the Bulldogs wiped out a 12-point Buckeyes lead, while Graves added 14. Howard also grabbed seven rebounds and had two assists.
“We got pretty good looks in the first half, we just didn’t knock them down,” first-year Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “The resiliency we showed, after going 0-for-15, was really, really good. You talk about moxie or whatever, and it was really good.”
Ohio State (4-3) was expected to have a big advantage inside with 7-foot freshman Kosta Koufos and 6-8 forward Othello Hunter.
Koufos finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, and Hunter added 10 points and seven rebounds.
But with Jamar Butler plagued by foul trouble and shooting woes, the Buckeyes didn’t have a consistent outside threat. Butler, averaging nearly 16 points coming in, finished with five.
The bigger problem was turnovers. Ohio State committed a season-high 24 and shot only 29.2 percent from the field in the second half, and that was all Butler needed to break out of its first-half doldrums.
The Buckeyes have now lost three-of-four, all coming in a five-game span that has included games against four ranked teams.
“One of the things that really crushed us was 24 turnovers,” said Buckeyes coach Thad Matta, a Butler grad. “I thought we did a good job getting the ball inside, but there was one time where we had four straight possessions with a turnover and that can’t happen.”
Butler took advantage of the Buckeyes carelessness, even after losing Campbell to a right knee injury with 11:47 left in the game.
For a while, it looked like Ohio State was headed toward a rout.
The Buckeyes jumped to a 15-5 lead and extended it to as much as 25-11 with 7:07 to go in the first half, the largest deficit the Bulldogs had faced all season.
But Graves’ buzzer-beater from the right corner, which got Butler within 30-20 at the half, changed everything.
“We go from being down 13 to being down 10 and now we’re just a couple of shots out of it,” Stevens said. “It was a huge shot.”
Koufos opened the second with a putback, making it 32-20, and then the Bulldogs righted themselves. Campbell and Green combined for three straight 3-pointers to make it 32-29, and when the Buckeyes rebuilt a 38-31 lead, Green, Howard and Graves dug in. They combined for all of Butler’s points in a 14-2 run that gave the Bulldogs a 45-40 lead with 7:24 left.
The Bulldogs were only getting started.
Over the next three minutes they outscored Ohio State 10-2, making it 55-44, and the Buckeyes managed only one more basket the rest over the final 4 minutes for an improbably closing run of 34-8 over the final 12:57.
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t great, but Butler will gladly take another win.
“That wasn’t even close to our best game,” Graves said. “But I think games are won on defense, and we continued to put ourselves in position to win the game. We pulled together, and we did it.”