By Paul Gotham
BROOKLYN, NY – It’s tough to win a basketball game when a team can’t score. Just ask the Butler Bulldogs. Butler could not overcome a pair of scoring droughts in falling to St. Louis, Saturday afternoon.
Dwayne Evans notched a double-double, and the SLU Billikens downed Butler, 67-56 to advance to Sunday’s Atlantic 10 men’s basketball championship at the Barclays Center.
Whether it was the fact of having to play their third game in as many days or a suffocating half-court Billiken defense, the Bulldogs went without a field goal for the final 5:43 of the first half. The situation replayed mid-way through the second half.
With the defense doing its part, Evans scored 11 straight as SLU pushed their advantage to double digits and never looked back.
After responding to a Butler defense which switched between zone and man-to-man, SLU settled in and found its rhythm. Evans started the run hitting three-of-four free throws. He followed with a turnaround jumper in the lane. On the next possession, the 6-6 forward took a feed from Rob Loe at the top of the arc and finished at the rim. The junior then poured in a jump hook and capped the run with another turnaround and a free throw for a traditional three-point play.
SLU led 60-47.
“They played a lot of zone,” noted Evans. “Early on I just kinda looked for spots. When they went man, I tried to maximize my size advantage or any matchup advantage I had inside.”
One day after scoring 25 on eight-of-nine shooting from the floor and a perfect nine-of-nine at the line, Evans hit seven-of-10 and nine-of-11.
“Guys were hitting threes,” Evans explained. “So they really couldn’t sag off. It really was a team effort. It wasn’t just me.”
SLU fell behind early and often having to respond to an early five-point deficit and a seven-point deficit later in the first half.
But the Billiken defense tightened. Clarke, the A10’s top shooter from behind the arc, failed to connect again on the afternoon from long range. He entered play averaging almost four makes behind the arc per contest. Saturday, he only got six attempts.
As usual, the Billikens got contributions from a variety of sources. Evans started a 10-3 first half run hitting three-of-four free throws. Kwamian Mitchell followed with a pull-up three from the left wing.
“I thought we got a little anxious the first half,” said St. Louis head coach Jim Crews. “We took some low percentage shots at times. Butler really gets into you at different places, different pressure points, and maybe got us a little bit hurried at times.”
Cody Ellis tied the score at 25 with a pull-up trey.
“Coach always stresses it’s a 40-minute game. You know 15 rounds,” Ellis remarked. “You can’t win it in the first 10 or 15 minutes of the game.”
Rob Loe scored at the buzzer to give the Bills their first lead since six to five. Mitchell used a crossover dribble to get in the lane. When the defense rotated, Mitchell dished to Loe for the lay in and a 27-25 halftime advantage.
Marshall gave Butler a 17-14 lead earlier in the half with a basket. Rotnei Clarke pushed the margin to five with a drive in traffic.
After Evans found a seam in the Butler zone for a deuce, Andrew Smith nailed a three at the top of the key, and Butler led 22-15.
Roosevelt Jones thwarted an earlier attempt by the Bills to climb back. Mitchell looked to go end-to-end after making a steal, but Jones legged out the play and blocked Mitchell’s layup attempt.
Butler, who has defeated then no.1 Indiana, the current no. 1 Gonzaga along with Marquette, North Carolina and Vanderbilt, fell to St. Louis for the third time this season. The last time the Bills hit that trifecta was the 1988-89 season.
“They’re the strongest team we’ve played against this year,” said Butler head coach Brad Stevens. “Indiana’s great. I think Indiana’s at the level that everybody’s going to be chasing them in the NCAA Tournament, but as far as pure strength, St. Louis is old. They’ve been through it. They’ve done it. And they are men.”
Stevens added: “I’ve said all year to the people that have listened, and some that don’t, how good they are. They are a legitimate contender for the whole thing.”
Clarke led Butler with 16 on seven-of-15 shooting.
Butler outrebounded St. Louis, 39-30. Jones paced Butler with nine boards.
Evans led all rebounders with 11.
“He’s a very physical player. He’s probably the most physical player that I ever played against in my life,” Jones said when asked about Evans. “I really thought that he should have been Player of the Year in the conference. He’s a real good player. He’s kind of got a body type like me, but he’s taller than me, so he’s able to outphysical me, which is surprising to me. I never played against anybody that physical. So he got the best of me today.”
Ellis added 13.
Mitchell handed out five assists and had five steals.
The Billikens forced 20 turnovers while limiting Butler to nine assists on 21 field goals.
SLU improved to 5-0 on the season when forcing opponents into 20 or more miscues.
St. Louis advances to Sunday’s championship against VCU. The Rams defeated UMass, 71-62. A 1:00 pm tip off is scheduled at the Barclays Center.