March 3, 2007
FAIRBORN, Ohio (AP) - Despite a strong record and Top 25 ranking, Butler is taking nothing for granted.
A.J. Graves, the nation's second-leading free-throw shooter, hit six foul shots in the final 53 seconds of overtime to lead the 18th-ranked Bulldogs to a 67-66 victory over Loyola of Chicago in the semifinals of the Horizon League tournament on Saturday night.
The win was just one more plus on Butler's postseason resume.
"It was a step in the right direction," said Brandon Crone, who led second-seeded Butler with 17 points. "We don't want to put it in the (NCAA selection) committee's hands."
Butler (27-5) shared the Horizon League's regular-season title with Wright State, but had to travel because the Raiders won a tiebreaker to get the top seed. Wright State (21-9) met fourth-seeded Wisconsin-Green Bay (18-14) in the other semifinal. The championship game - and an automatic NCAA tournament berth - will be decided Tuesday night.
Graves, who didn't have a field goal, finished with 12 points. Averaging 17.3 points coming in, he was 12-for-12 at the line - and 0-for-9 from the field. He's shooting 95.4 percent from the line this season.
"It was gratifying to get a win," coach Todd Lickliter said. "It doesn't have to be pretty - you just have to hang tough."
Blake Schilb scored 29 points and J.R. Blount had 15 for the third-seeded Ramblers (21-11), who lost two overtime games against Butler this season and won one 75-71.
Totaling up the three games, Butler outscored Loyola, 208-207. It was that close all season, and particularly so in the teams' biggest game to date.
"I didn't want to lose," an emotional Schilb said. "You always wonder how your college career will end. I don't know if I'll ever play another college game."
The Bulldogs were 10-for-10 from the line over the final 1:51 and didn't score a field goal over the final 4:25 of overtime.
"It was a sense of relief to put this behind us and prepare for the championship game," Crone said.
Schilb had forced the overtime by hitting a running half-hook with 33 seconds left in regulation to tie it at 54.
The Bulldogs ran the clock down before calling timeout with 14.8 seconds left. Graves then drove from the top of the key to the right baseline, attempting to draw a foul on Majak Kou. But Graves' off-balance shot from 12 feet was an airball and the rebound went off teammate Julian Betko's hands and out of bounds with 2 seconds left.
On the final play of regulation, Andy Polka inbounded to midcourt to Schilb, who got a wide-open look. His 3-pointer left his hand just before the buzzer sounded and bounded off the back of the rim.
The teams were tied at 61 with 1:11 left in the overtime, before Graves took the game over in his own quiet way.
Graves made the defensive play of the game, stepping in front of a Schilb pass and driving the distance before being fouled with 52.4 seconds left. He hit both free throws.
Loyola turned it over again, throwing the ball away on an inbounds play, with Graves again fouled on the play and hitting both shots for a 65-61 lead with 28 seconds left.
"He found another way to score," Lickliter said of Graves' offensive contributions.
Schilb banged in a 3 at the other end before Graves was fouled on the inbounds pass and converted two more to make it 67-64. Kou's basket cut it to one.
Graves turned the ball over when he was forced out of bounds in a multiplayer trap, but Schilb's shot while slicing through the heart of the lane was off the mark and a tip also missed, the ball going out of bounds to Loyola.
The Ramblers inbounded to Blount, but he was tied up and was unable to get off a shot.
"It's difficult to be up here as a losing coach. It was up for grabs until the last play," Loyola's Jim Whitesell said. "One more possession - that's what it came down to."