Butler and Graves rely on Sweet 16 experience to win
CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois is an incredibly scary place for basketball-playing visitors, and it's not only because of the always-packed SIU Arena and its deafening "Dawg Pound." The omens of doom begin when you exit the interstate toward Carbondale -- the road is unlucky Highway 13, and the giant Saluki paws painted on the road begin five miles out from campus. No wonder SIU has only lost four games there since the start of the 2001-02 season.
Actually, make that five. On Friday night, No. 17 Butler refused to be intimidated in a mid-major marquee matchup of two Sweet 16 teams from a season ago. And no one was more fearless than senior Bulldog guard A.J. Graves, who sank a long-range 3-pointer as time expired to seal a thrilling 57-55 win.
"There were two guys in my face," said Graves, Butler's leading scorer at 16.3 points per game. "I didn't see it until it went through the net, then the buzzer sounded and I saw my teammates run out on the floor. But that wasn't a prayer. We practice shots like that all the time."
With five seconds to go, Graves ran the length of the court, released a 30-foot shot that rattled around the rim, banked off the glass and slid through the net as the hoop was bathed in red light.
The senior leader's display of ultimate confidence was somewhat unexpected in context, though. Much as in last season's classic BracketBuster (a four-point SIU win) in which Graves battled sickness and 1-for-8 shooting, he found himself ensnared in SIU's sticky defensive web all night. He missed eight of his first 10 shots before hitting the game-winner. Thanks to the clutch layups and free throws of fellow senior guard Mike Green, who turned in a nearly identical performance as he did in February (18 points then, 19 points on Friday), the Bulldogs stayed close down the stretch.
First-year head coach Brad Stevens, who was a Butler assistant for six years before Todd Lickliter left for Iowa last summer, also has new weaponry that wasn't available to last season's Sweet 16 squad.
Matt Howard is a freshman power forward who chose the Bulldogs over the likes of West Virginia and Indiana. Against SIU, the 6-7 rookie chipped in 15 points on 4-for-7 shooting, including several rim-rocking dunks, which have been missing from Butler's repertoire for many years. Howard absorbed contact all night from the Salukis' big man rotation of Randal Falker, Matt Shaw and Tony Boyle, and he made seven of his eight free throw attempts.
We've lost a small part of the discipline in this program, and it shouldn't have even got to that point tonight.
The Bulldogs' key holdovers from the Sweet 16 run -- Drew Streicher and 6-8 sharpshooter Pete Campbell -- also contributed to Butler's win. Streicher had just two points and three rebounds but played 32 solid minutes. Campbell had his best performance (nine points on three 3-pointers) since missing two weeks due to a freak knee-knock injury earlier this month.
Yet even with last season's NCAA experience that likely helped the Bulldogs stave off the late collapse that plagued them in February's BracketBuster, they still nearly blew the ending.
"Out of the huddle, we called it by the wrong name," Graves said of the final play.
"Well, you weren't supposed to bank it in," Stevens replied with a smile.
Whether Graves called glass or not, the Bulldogs' win left defending Missouri Valley Conference champions Southern Illinois contemplating a 5-6 record going into league play, which begins Sunday at home against Missouri State.
"This was our kind of game," said SIU head coach Chris Lowery, whose team was a mere 3 of 12 from the foul line. "It was the perfect atmosphere, a packed house and an opportunity to get a win against a Top 25 team. Even if that last shot goes in, it should have been at least tied if we'd made just a few more free throws. We've lost a small part of the discipline in this program, and it shouldn't have even got to that point tonight."
The point Butler now finds itself at is 12-1 at the close of its nonconference slate -- an identical mark as they had last season heading into Horizon League play. But this version is a great deal more road-tested than the team that eventually beat Old Dominion and Maryland to achieve the Sweet 16. The 2007-08 Bulldogs have nine wins away from home, including three in Anchorage, Alaska, at the Great Alaska Shootout.
And now they can claim victory in one of the most difficult venues in all mid-majordom.
"In an environment like that, against a team like that, you have to be extremely tough," said Stevens. "Everyone wearing Butler blue has to be on the same page. And our guys stayed together until the final horn."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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