NEW ORLEANS – A reporter asked Butler Coach Brad Stevens Wednesday if it was appropriate to call his team a Cinderella again, given what happened a year ago in the NCAA tournament. Stevens peered through his glasses with a bemused look on his face as the questioner then wondered aloud what folks should refer to them as instead.
“Just call us the Bulldogs,” Stevens said.
No matter what name you prefer, there was no denying that the eighth-seeded Bulldogs were the better team Thursday night during their 61-54 victory over No. 4 seed Wisconsin in a Southeast Region semifinal. But as seems to be the case with this Butler team, that wasn’t evident until a few tense moments had passed.
After leading by as many as 20 points in the second half thanks to a putrid shooting performance by the Badgers, Butler saw its lead twice dwindle to four after Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor hit consecutive three-pointers in the waning moments.
But Butler guard Selvin Mack hit a tough jumper with 56 seconds remaining, and Matt Howard grabbed a clutch offensive rebound and sank two free throws to seal the deal. Butler will face No. 2 seed Florida in the Elite Eight on Saturday, with a chance to make consecutive appearances in the Final Four.
“I don’t think that this group goes into games not believing,” said Stevens as he opened his postgame news conference. “I don’t think that this group came here not believing, so we’re gonna see if we can’t get one on Saturday and move on.”
Howard led the Bulldogs with 20 points and 12 rebounds, while Mack added 13, but it was a horrendous shooting night from the Badgers that may have been the biggest contributing factor in Butler’s 12th straight win since losing three straight conference games last month.
The Badgers’ stars, Taylor and forward Jon Leuer (three points), shot a combined 7 of 31 from the field.
“If you let Leuer and Taylor get wide open and hit their first four or five shots, they may continue to hit those shots,” Howard said. “So it is really important to start off the right way.”
After taking a nine-point lead into halftime, Butler blew open the contest to begin the second half. A layup by Bulldogs forward Khyle Marshall capped off on a 17-3 run dating from the end of the first half that put the game out of reach, seemingly for good.
Wisconsin, which earlier this month scored 33 points in a loss to Penn State, shot just 30.4 percent from the floor for the game. During a 15-minute span covering the end of the first half and the start of the second half, the Badgers made just 1 of 22 field goals.
When forward Mike Bruusewitz completed a post move in the lane and was fouled with a little more than 14 minutes remaining in the game, Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan threw his hands up in mock celebration of finally ending the drought.
“You would, too,” cracked Ryan, who said he had no issue with his team’s shot selection. “I mean, you’ve got Jon Leuer 1 for 12? He’s a good player, very good player. … Maybe he needed to be guarded a little closer.”
But the Badgers went on to miss five more shots after Ryan’s sideline antics, and by the time the parade of bricks was complete, Butler had its biggest lead of the night, 47-27.
Taylor tried to make things interesting late, scoring 16 second-half points to finish with a game-high 22 as the Badgers turned to a full-court press.
But it wasn’t enough, and the Bulldogs will once again get another chance to shock the college basketball world Saturday – even if some don’t find it all that surprising anymore.
“Just to be back here – I don’t know how to put it in words,” Stevens said in the wee hours of Friday morning. “I think it’s just one of those things that we’re just trying to win the next game. … I just got a text message from a friend. He said, ‘I think we’re having a lot more fun than you guys are.’ That’s probably true. But trust us, we are very happy to be here, and we’re having a lot of fun.”