Bulldogs take big lead, then have to hold on
Checking into the Crystal City Marriott on Friday, Butler coach Brad Stevens got a feeling of deja vu. He realized he was in the same room he occupied two years ago when the Bulldogs played in the NCAA tournament.
It was a good omen. That trip went well, and so did this one as No. 14 Butler withstood a raucous sellout crowd and a furious rally by George Washington in a 59-56 victory before 4,488 in the Bulldogs' first trip to Smith Center.
It was the first time in seven years that GW packed the gym to capacity, a testament to the Colonials' rapid rise under second-year coach Mike Lonergan. But Butler (20-4, 7-2 Atlantic 10) answered with smothering defense and big-game pedigree.
Two years ago and 15 blocks away at Verizon Center, the Bulldogs won tournament games by one point over Old Dominion and two points over top-seeded Pittsburgh on their way to their second straight NCAA title game. For Stevens, the positive mojo began Friday.
"Same hotel, same room as I stayed in when we beat Pittsburgh and ODU, pretty neat," Stevens said. "The [hotel], that was on purpose. But I didn't know where my room was. That just happened."
There was nothing random about the Butler defense. The Bulldogs limited the Colonials to 27.9 percent shooting from the floor and 1-for-12 (8.3 percent) from the arc, doing it by contesting every pass and shot.
"I thought both teams played physical," Lonergan said. "That's fun. That's the way the game should be played."
Dominating the boards and stifling the GW offense, Butler built its lead steadily. When senior Rotnei Clarke (14 points, six rebounds, four assists, three steals) hit a jumper with 12 minutes left, the Bulldogs had their biggest lead at 48-31. When Clarke fed Erik Fromm for a layup with 7:34 left, Butler still had a 15-point bulge. But it would be the Bulldogs' final field goal.
Using an over-playing, man-to-man press, GW (11-11, 5-4) rattled Butler. On several occasions, the Bulldogs were unable to inbound and called a timeout or threw desperation passes that were intercepted. Led by seniors Isaiah Armwood (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Lasan Kromah (10 points, five rebounds, three steals), GW chipped away but remained frustrated by its inability to finish as it missed three layups and four free throws in the final seven minutes.
Still, with Butler committing five turnovers in the final two minutes, the GW defense paved the way for one last run. A layup by Kromah with 52 seconds left made it 57-54. A backcourt steal by freshman Joe McDonald (10 points) followed by his two free throws cut the lead to one point with 44 seconds left.
After Butler's Kellen Dunham hit two free throws with 23 seconds left, GW missed two 3-pointers in the final 14 seconds, and McDonald's last-ditch attempt to tie was disrupted by a Butler guard as the ball popped high into the air, and the final seconds ticked off the clock.
It was one last reminder that the difference was the Bulldogs' defense.
"I looked at the stat sheet, and I was amazed to shoot 27 percent and even be in the game. Credit their defense, especially in the first half," Lonergan said. "That's a heck of a team, heck of a coach, a hell of a league."