February 13, 2009

Bulldogs Put Out Flames, 80-61

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Butler could easily have been distracted Friday night. A brief text message from Kevin Kuwik, the coordinator of basketball operations, kept them focused.

Hours after the team was told Kuwik's girlfriend had been killed in the plane crash in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., the 15th-ranked Bulldogs heeded his advice: Play with passion.

Butler delivered its most inspired performance all season, getting 19 points and eight rebounds from Matt Howard and 13 3-pointers to roll past Illinois-Chicago 80-61.

"It was for him tonight," backup guard Zach Hahn said after scoring 15 points, all on 3s. "We're praying for him, and we're glad he's with his family. When he comes back, he'll be with his family here."

For Butler (22-2, 13-1 Horizon League), this was not just another victory.

They had a team meeting Friday morning, in which players were informed of the tragedy. Players wore a black stripe on the left shoulder of their tanktops, a tribute to Lorin Maurer, who was headed to meet Kuwik for his brother's wedding in Buffalo. Before tipoff, there was a moment of silence to honor Maurer and the mother of Flames coach Jimmy Collins. Collins missed the game because he was attending her funeral in Syracuse, N.Y.

And when the game ended, Butler coach Brad Stevens opened his postgame news conference by alluding to the events that shocked a basketball program.

"We certainly spent more time today not talking about basketball than usual," he said. "But I thought our guys came out and played good basketball tonight. We handled ourselves well."

Howard dominated the middle in the first half, getting the Flames' defense completely out of synch. When they tried to collapse around him, Howard flipped the ball out to open teammates for all those 3s - a two-hour lesson in Butler basketball.

Four players reached double figures, led by Howard and Gordon Hayward, who had 18.

The Bulldogs were 13-of-32 from 3-point range, nine coming from Hayward and Hahn. They committed just eight turnovers and after taking control early, never giving Illinois-Chicago (11-14, 4-11) a chance to challenge.

Butler has now won six straight in this series, three in a row overall and 16 straight at home. None was more emotional than this one.

"We want to go out and play our best every time," Hayward said. "But this puts things in perspective. He told us to play with passion, and that's what we did."

Butler took its cue from the opening tip.

Howard's early scoring barrage inside forced Illinois-Chicago to adjust.

When it did, Hayward was open and the one-two punch of Butler's two 6-foot-8 forwards led to an 18-3 scoring run over a nine-minute span in the first half, giving Butler a 25-8 lead with 7:49 to go.

A few minutes later, Hayward and Howard went back to work. They scored four points in a 6-0 flurry to make it 36-17 less than 17 minutes into the game.

Acting coach Mark Coomes, who replaced Collins on the sideline, finally got Illinois-Chicago settled down.

The Flames scored the last five points of the half, closing to 38-26, then outscored Butler 10-5 to open the second half. Josh Mayo, who had 19 points, ended the run with a 3-pointer that got the Flames within 43-36.

Butler had all the answers, though.

Hahn and freshman Shelvin Mack combined for three straight 3s, and when Mack missed a fourth, Hayward's tip-in extended the Butler lead to 56-38.

"Butler shot it great," Coomes said. "Our zone didn't hold up real good and Hayward nailed it. Hahn was excellent off the bench, and they're a very physical team with each player, without fouling. They really keep their hands off you."

Illinois-Chicago had one more chance after scoring eight straight points to close to 68-60 with 4:01 to go.

But the Bulldogs responded with a three-point play from Mack and back-to-back 3s from Hahn and Hayward, sealing a victory just the way Kuwik would have drawn it up.

"He was definitely on our mind tonight," Howard said. "You know, you can play games for guys, but you still have to go out and play it the right way. Tonight, I think we did that."