Butler makes grand A-10 entrance with win over St. Joe's
PHILADELPHIA -- Butler's Atlantic 10 Conference debut went about as well as the Bulldogs could have hoped.
The Bulldogs played at Saint Joseph's unfriendly Hagan Arena on Wednesday against a Hawks team they'd never played before, one that already had a win over a top-20 team and was picked in preseason to win the league.
However, the No. 14-ranked Bulldogs came away looking like they could win the league in their first year as A-10 members by recording a 72-66 victory in front of a sellout crowd.
Butler left the Horizon League for the Atlantic 10 after 11 years, where it went a combined 270-101 (.727), made five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances between 2007 and 2011 and reached the national title game in both 2010 and 2011. The Bulldogs were picked to finish sixth in the A-10 for their first season, while St. Joseph's was picked to win the conference, but both teams were among the half-dozen that received multiple first-place votes.
"It's great, but we have 15 more," Butler coach Brad Stevens said about the programs' first win in a new league. "I'm excited, I'm thrilled. ... I'm most excited about the fact that we stayed the course with what we said we were going to do and nobody panicked when things didn't necessarily go out way."
After trailing by five at halftime, Butler had a 9-0 run to begin the second half, taking a 44-40 lead and forcing Phil Martelli to call timeout just two minutes after intermission. Saint Joseph's responded with a 11-2 run of its own, retaking the lead with 15:34 remaining at 48-46 on a Langston Galloway jumper.
The Hawks would lead for the next eight minutes, though never by more than five points, until a 3-pointer by Rotnei Clarke gave the Bulldogs the lead at 57-56 with 7:42 to play.
That lead would increase to five down the stretch and the home team was never able to recover.
Clarke, who entered the game the fourth-leading scorer in the league (16.2 ppg), finished with a game-high 28 points on 10 of 22 shooting, including 6 of 10 from 3-point range. Every time the Arkansas transfer would touch the ball, a chorus of boos rained down from all around Hagan, but he said afterward he barely heard the crowd -- not that it would have mattered.
"I didn't know they were (booing) every time I touched it," he admitted. "The extra hours that you put in the gym, that's what you work for -- being able to go onto the road and playing tough venues with hostile crowds and being able to hit shots that quiet the crowds. I think that's the fun thing about playing on the road"
C.J. Aiken's jumper with 3:37 remaining made it a two-point game again, but Butler's Andrew Smith (24 points, 10 rebounds) responded with a nice hook shot of his own.
"Andrew really settled us down, and Rotnei, every time they'd cut it to two, Rotnei seemed like he'd hit one and get it back to five, or hit one to tie it up," Stevens said. "These guys just made plays that seniors make."
The Hawks had a final chance with less than 30 seconds to play when it was 70-66, but Galloway missed a pair of 3-point attempts. After Alex Barlow missed the front-end of a one-and-one with 22.6 seconds to play, the Hawks' Halil Kanacevic couldn't connect on either of his attempts from beyond the arc. Clarke's free throws with two seconds remaining provided the final margin.
"What I just said to the team is that we weren't good enough," Martelli said. "Individual players weren't good enough, coaching wasn't good enough, scouting wasn't good enough."
Butler and Saint Joseph's featured two of the top 3-point shooters in the conference in Clarke and Galloway, but it was another player who helped Saint Joseph's to a 40-35 halftime lead.
Chris Wilson came out on fire, knocking down four 3-pointers in the first five minutes of the game as the Hawks jumped out to a 15-9 lead in front of a rocking sellout crowd.
Butler wouldn't let Saint Joseph's get away easily, however.
A 3-pointer by Eric Fromm and back-to-back layups by Khyle Marshall drew the teams even at 22 with 8:48 remaining in the half, and a Clarke 3-pointer just 28 seconds later gave the Bulldogs their first lead at 25-22, capping off a 10-0 run.
Clarke, who came into the game just 2 of 15 from 3-point range over his last two games, had a team-high 13 points in the first half on 5 of 14 shooting (3 of 7 from three). Smith had 10 points, all coming in the first 8:09, as the only other Bulldog in double figures.
A 6-foot-3 sophomore guard, Wilson had never made more than two 3-pointers in one game, and came into this one with just seven makes from beyond the arc this season. He would finish the first half with 15 points on 5 of 7 shooting, with all of his attempts coming from behind the 3-point line. He wouldn't score a point after the break, missing his only shot attempt in seven second-half minutes.
"It was a little bit awry in the first half with Wilson, and Aiken in the second, making all those shots," Stevens said. "You have to give up something against really good teams and we were going to be a little bit late to Wilson and Aiken and the other bigs and boy, it almost burned us."
Saint Joseph's led by five at the break thanks to Wilson and junior forward Ronald Roberts, Jr., who had nine points and six rebounds as well as three blocks.
Notes: Butler is off to its best start since 2008-09, when it started the season 19-1 en route to a 26-6 season and NCAA Tournament appearance. ... This is the second consecutive game that Kanacevic came off the bench following a two-game suspension for unsportsmanlike behavior in St. Joseph's loss to Villanova back on Dec. 11. ... Barlow started his eighth straight game for Butler, while the other four Bulldogs starters (Marshall, Smith, Clarke and Roosevelt Jones) have all started all 15 games.
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