MILWAUKEE (AP) — Matt Howard scored 18 points and Shelvin Mack added 14 to lead Butler to a 59-44 victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Tuesday night for its third Horizon League tournament title in the past four years.
The Bulldogs (23-9) will get a chance to duplicate its wild run last year to the NCAA championship game when they fell two points short to Duke.
Butler (23-9) looked shaky at the season’s midway point, but reached the NCAA tournament for the 11th time by reeling off nine straight wins and avoiding losing to Milwaukee (19-13) for the third time this season.
The Panthers got 10 points apiece from Tone Boyle, Tony Meier and Anthony Hill, but couldn’t overcome a terrible shooting night, finishing 30 percent from the field.
The Panthers made their move when Ryan Allen’s layup cut it to 42-39, but Butler answered with a 16-1 run and held Milwaukee without a field goal for more than 7 1/2 minutes.
Howard hit a layup, Shawn Vanzant added one and after a miss the Bulldogs got out in transition as Howard went through the lane for a two-handed slam that made it 48-39 with 8:13 left.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Chase Stigall and Mack put Butler ahead 54-40 with 5:21 left and well on its way to the school’s seventh Horizon League tournament title.
The Panthers mounted an 11-0 run early in the second half trailing by 15. Meier hit consecutive 3-pointers, the second when Butler’s Andrew Smith fell into the crowd and made it a 5-on-4 on the other end.
On Milwaukee’s next possession, Boyle was fouled beyond the arc and made all three free throws and Allen’s layup made it 38-34 as the game tightened but the Panthers never rallied all the way back.
Butler opened up a big lead using a 14-0 first-half run after a stifling defensive effort held the Panthers scoreless for 7 1/2 minutes.
Butler outworked Milwaukee, never more apparent than when the Bulldogs got two offensive rebounds on one possession before Smith’s layup put Butler ahead 33-20 at the half.
The Panthers, wearing bright, bumblebee striped yellow shoes, were looking for their fourth NCAA tournament appearance after winning the Horizon in 2003, 2005 and 2006, including two wins over Butler.
Milwaukee crushed the Bulldogs by 24 in early January, a glimpse of promise in an up-and-down beginning to conference play. The Panthers fell to 9-11 after a bad loss to Valparasio, questioning where their season was headed during a team meeting after midnight in a hotel in suburban Indianapolis.
After the chat which lasted about three hours, the players responded two nights later with a win over the Bulldogs in overtime to start a streak of 10 wins in the next 11 games heading into Tuesday night.
Milwaukee’s postseason resume will put it in the NIT after winning the three-way tie for the Horizon League’s regular-season title.
Since 1985, when the NCAA tournament expanded from 48 to 64 teams, only four teams that made the championship game the year before missed the tourney completely, most recently Ohio State in 2008.
That bubble the Bulldogs were on if they lost this game? Butler popped it with this emphatic effort.
Now, a half-dozen other teams can eye what may have been Butler’s at-large berth because the Bulldogs will once again be representing the Horizon League despite having as many black and blue moments as their uniforms this season.
Injuries on top of the departures of conference player of the year Gordon Hayward, Avery Jukes and Willie Veasley appeared to bring Butler down after a 14-9 start. Three players have missed time with concussions and Mack failed to finish several games early in the year with cramps.
Even coach Brad Stevens had an issue.
He wore contacts that were too tight, causing vision problems that forced him out of a game two weeks ago. He was diagnosed with a swollen cornea and has come back to the sideline sporting glasses.