By Ryan Lazo
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — It may be Butler University’s first, and possibly last time, participating in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament, but their business-first mentality has them proving that they belong.
While Butler did not play their best, especially in an ice-cold 35 percent shooting effort in the first half, the Bulldogs never wavered in their confidence, something they no doubt learned from their head coach.
And following Brad Stevens’ lead, Butler fought off a Dayton squad that desperately tried to keep their season alive in a 73-67 victory in the opening round of the A-10 Tournament.
“I knew it was going to be a good game. Dayton was coming in playing their best basketball,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said following the win. “Look at them statistically, they’re one of the more deceiving teams in our league because they’ve been in the top 30 offensively. I was proud of the fact we were able to win.”
Butler’s shooting effort in the first half allowed them to take a three-point lead into the locker room, 33-30, but Dayton quickly went on 7-0 run to take a 43-39 lead, forcing a Butler timeout. And in the huddle, Stevens’ implored his team to tighten up defensively and improve their cuts.
He turned to his seniors and they delivered.
Rotnei Clarke came off two screens, one a back screen off the ball and the other at the top of the key, before draining a 3-pointer that quickly changed momentum. Clarke’s three was followed by Kellen Dunham‘s 3-pointer and just as quickly as Dayton grabbed the lead, they relinquished it in just 2:54 of game action.
“Give Butler a lot of credit. Tournament tough,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said of Butler. “The game’s never over when you play them. They’re well-coached and they execute so well, you almost feel like every possession they’re able to pick you apart.”
And that’s exactly what the Bulldogs did in the second half.
While Butler could not cool down the Flyers’ red-hot offense which came into the game shooting at least 50 percent from the field in each of the last six games, they could control their offensive philosophy. The Bulldogs utilized plenty of screens to set up Clarke from the outside as well as rolls to the hoop to set up others.
It worked to perfection, especially during a 2:15 time frame between the 7:11 mark to the 4:26 mark in the second half. While the Flyers made sure to key on Butler’s usual suspects like Clarke, Kellen Dunham and Andrew Smith, they did not account for Erik Fromm.
The junior forward accounted for nine-straight points during the stretch, nailing a three, slamming home a dunk and hitting everything in between. It was his stretch that helped Butler extend the lead to 10, essentially ending the hopes of Dayton.
“The series of plays where Fromm was in the middle of them, he hit a couple of effort plays,” Stevens said. “That kinda separated us from Dayton. The neat part of it was that it Fromm. It was our bench kids.”
That’s right because even though Clarke scored 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting and Smith dropped in 18 of his own on 6-of-11 shooting, Butler has other weapons that can hurt teams.
Even more troubling for future opponents?
While they may be new to the A-10 Tournament, they are prepared for anything.
“This is why you play in Maui,” Stevens said. “This is why you play in those preseason tournaments. Everything you do in the non-conference from a scheduling standpoint is to prepare you for now.”
And it’s from those experiences that Butler players knew that while they struggled early, they would be able to figure it out to get the victory.
“We were probably a little passive at first and didn’t play aggressive or hard enough at first,” Clarke said. “But just like before, we got into the flow a bit and shots started to fall.”
Butler’s next opponent is La Salle, a team that held Butler to just eight 3-point attempts in an Explorer victory.
“They play four guards on the court at the same time,” Steven said. “They have four great decision-makers on the floor. Four great drivers on the floor. Very good shooters. And those bigs are really undervalued. It’s about being better defensively and we weren’t good offensively up there so hopefully we are better tomorrow.”
Tightening up the defense and making subtle tweaks to the offense. Butler is a well-oiled machine taking each game one at a time as they aim for their ultimate goal — another Final Four appearance.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13