A year after making it to the national championship game, the Butler Bulldogs are headed back to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Dawgs won the Horizon League championship Tuesday night, defeating Milwaukee 59-44 in the Panthers’ home arena and earning an automatic bid to the field of 68.
Matt Howard scored 18 points and Shelvin Mack added 14 as the Bulldogs finished the regular season with a nine-game winning streak and a 23-9 record.
Mack’s first three-point field goal gave Butler the lead for good at 7-4, and the Bulldogs led by as many as 17 points in the first half.
Butler went into halftime up 13 points, 33-20, and took a 15-point lead early in the second half, 38-23, on a Shawn Vanzant three-pointer. But Milwaukee came up with an 11-0 run to get within 38-34. They would get within three points, 42-39, later in the half.
Then the Bulldogs took over. Howard’s left-handed driving layup made it 44-39 Butler. Vanzant drove to the hoop for a 46-39 lead. Andrew Smith then blocked a shot and tipped the ball to Chase Stigall, who found Howard running the court. Howard fed Mack, who passed the ball back to Howard for a dunk, giving the Bulldogs a nine-point lead, 48-39.
After Milwaukee’s Anthony Hill hit one free throw (Hill finished with 10 points, eight under his average against Butler this season), Stigall hit a three-pointer to put Butler up 51-40 with 6:15 left. Mack followed with a three-pointer to run the lead to 14, two Smith foul shots put Butler up 16 and Matt Howard finished the run with a layup that gave the Bulldogs a 58-40 lead.
Butler had lost to Milwaukee twice during the regular season – a 76-52 drubbing at Milwaukee and an 86-80 overtime loss at Hinkle Fieldhouse. But the Bulldogs, in winning a Horizon League-record seventh title, held Milwaukee to 30 percent shooting and the Panthers’ starting backcourt to two points.
The Bulldogs will find out Sunday who, when and where they’ll play in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.