Butler holds off Bucknell in NCAA Tournament, plays Marquette next
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Butler was familiar with this scenario: Little team from an unheralded conference comes up big and knocks off a headliner. No way were the Bulldogs going to let that happen Thursday. With the NCAA Tournament game on the line, they were not going to let Bucknell out-Butler Butler.
For a while in the second half, it sure looked as though that was going to happen. Bucknell, from the Patriot League, went on a 19-2 run and appeared poised to oust the program from which it had drawn inspiration.
"They're a school sort of similar to Bucknell. They made some great runs the past few years," said Joe Willman, who had the game of his life for Bucknell with 20 points.
In the end, Butler (27-8) drew on the pedigree that made it a proverbial Cinderella NCAA championship game team two years in a row, 2010 and 2011. It tightened its vaunted defense and made some big shots, winning the second-round game, 68-56.
Butler will play Marquette, which survived against Davidson, in a third-round game Saturday.
The obvious observation is that Butler is used to playing in this kind of situation, except that Brad Stevens, the team's coach, pointed out that five of his top seven players never had been in an NCAA Tournament game before. What the Bulldogs really relied on Thursday at Rupp Arena was their system (especially on defense), coaching staff, reputation and preparation.
"The similarity is, it's Butler," said Stevens, who also coached those Final Four teams. "The similarity is that they can go on a minus-16 run and win the game. They have some mettle, they have some intestinal fortitude that is built up over time. The differences are just the people. But it truly is a Butler team, which I feel really good about."
Bucknell (28-6) had all the good feelings through the second half although Butler shackled center Mike Muscala, holding the Bisons' best player to nine points and 4-for-17 shooting. Willman, a power forward who averaged 10.3 points during the season, made four baskets in the surge that turned a 29-18 deficit into a 37-31 Bucknell lead. It was a surprising clutch performance, like the ones that made Butler famous.
Willman, whose father, Robert, played for Maritime in the 1970s and whose mom, the former Peggy O'Donohue, was a swimmer for Adelphi, knew all about Butler's Final Four runs. "Just shows that anybody can play basketball. You put in the hard work and really buy into what your team is doing and you can be successful," Willman said.
Fact is, Butler isn't one of the little guys anymore. It is an upwardly mobile big-time team, having jumped into the Atlantic 10 this season and having announced Wednesday that it is joining the new Big East.
"That's why I made the decision to come to Butler. I knew I would have the opportunity to play in a lot of big games and a lot of huge atmospheres," said Rotnei Clarke, a transfer from Arkansas who had 17 points.
Andrew Smith, a senior center who was on those championship-game teams, scored 16 and did the most to stop Muscala. He was asked to compare this Butler team to those of 2010 and 2011. "I don't really see a whole lot of differences," he said.
Now, just like then, Butler drew admiration from the other side. "You know, they're sort of a mid-major," Willman said. "Or they were."