March 8, 2011

Defense Lifts Butler To League Crown

AUDIO HIGHLIGHTS (1070 The Fan)

MILWAUKEE, WIS. -- Senior Matt Howard scored a game-high 18 points and Butler used a rock-solid defensive effort to defeat top-seeded Milwaukee, 59-44, in the title game of the 2011 Horizon League Men's Basketball Championship at U. S. Cellular Arena on Tuesday, March 8.  The win gave the Bulldogs a league-record seventh Horizon League Tournament crown and secured Butler's fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The Bulldogs (23-9), coming off a 76-68 victory over Cleveland State in the tournament semifinals, opened the title game with a 25-8 run to take command.  Howard scored 10 of Butler's first 15 points and three other teammates contributed to the opening run.  The Bulldogs held on for a 33-20 lead at halftime.

As good as Butler's early offense was, the Bulldogs' defense was even better.  The Bulldogs held Milwaukee (19-13) to just two field goals in the first 12 minutes and just four field goals in the first half!  The Panthers, who had shot better than 54% while beating Butler twice during the regular season, shot just 21.1% in the first 20 minutes.

"It obviously starts with us being able to get stops," said Howard of the team's opening run.

Butler head coach Brad Stevens agreed.

"We defended the way we like to defend," said Stevens after the title-clinching win.  "It took a while to become a good defensive team and part of the reason is we're little bit more traditional of a team than we've been and we had to have more options than we've had in the past.  And when you have more options it takes time to get better at them.  But these guys have really buckled down in the last month and become a good defensive team and that was the difference tonight."

The Panthers did make a charge in the second half, opening the final period with a 14-5 run to cut Butler's lead to 38-34 and then trimming the lead to three, 42-39, on a lay-up by Ryan Allen.

But the Bulldogs answered with six straight points, four by Howard and a lay-up by senior Shawn Vanzant, followed by a 10-1 run to put the game out of reach.  The 44 points were the fewest scored by the Panthers at U. S. Cellular Arena this season.

Howard led the Bulldogs in scoring for the third time in the past five games.  Mack chipped in with 14 points, while Vanzant added eight.  All three were named to the All-Tournament Team, along with Milwaukee's Anthony Hill and Valparaiso's Brandon Woods. Howard, who became the first player in league history to make the All-Tournament Team for four straight years, was named Tournament MVP for the second consecutive year.

Butler sophomore Andrew Smith led all rebounders with 10, while Howard added five.  Hill, senior Tone Boyle and junior Tony Meier each scored 10 points to lead the Panthers.

The Bulldogs, who shared the league's regular season title with Milwaukee and Cleveland State, captured the league's tournament trophy for the second straight year and for the seventh time overall, breaking the previous league record that they shared with Xavier.

Butler, runner-up in last year's NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship, will be making its 10th NCAA Tournament appearance in the past 15 years and its 11th overall.