Photo by Patrick Semansky
NEW ORLEANS -- Matt Howard and Butler are starting to make this look a little bit easier.
When the final horn sounded Thursday night, the Bulldogs calmly congratulated each other and walked over to shake hands with Wisconsin, yet another higher seed sent packing. It all seemed rather routine, at least for the Bulldogs.
After narrowly surviving its first two NCAA tournament games by margins of two points or less, Butler led by 20 points before holding on for a 61-54 victory over the Badgers.
"A lot of people just ignored us and said, 'Aw, they'll probably lose in the first or second round," Butler center Andrew Smith said after the Bulldogs won their 12th straight game since Feb. 5. "Here we are again, trying to prove everybody wrong. We'll try to win three more."
Howard had 20 points and 12 rebounds, Shelvin Mack scored 13 points and Shawn Vanzant 10 for the eighth-seeded Bulldogs (26-9), who upset top-seeded Pittsburgh by one point in the second round.
The Bulldogs took down the Big Ten bruisers, proving again they can play with anyone, especially in March. Another sure thing about these Horizon League champs: They won't have to duke it out with Duke in this year's tournament.
The top-seeded Blue Devils, who beat Butler 61-59 in last season's thrilling title game, were upset by Arizona 93-77 earlier in the evening.
The 6-foot-11 Smith briefly left the game after twisting his left ankle, but returned and finished with eight points and six rebounds in 24 minutes.
"I don't know necessarily that I'm shocked by (the upsets) because I know what this team is capable of," Howard said. "But (I'm) very happy that we were able to execute again tonight and get the job done."
The victory sent Butler into the Southeast regional final, where the Bulldogs meet second-seeded Florida (29-7) on Saturday for a trip to what would be the Bulldogs' second straight Final Four.
"Obviously, we're thrilled to still be playing," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "I don't think that this group goes into games not believing, and I don't think that this group came here not believing. And so we're going to see if we can't try to get one on Saturday and move on."
Jordan Taylor scored 22 for Wisconsin (25-9), which shot 30.4 percent (17 of 56). Jon Leuer, normally one of the Badgers' top offensive forces with 18.7 points per game coming in, was 1 of 12 shooting and finished with three points.
"We made plays that were uncharacteristic of us," Leuer said. "We tried to force some things and Butler did some good things defensively. ... They're just tough kids who are all around good players and they play to their strengths."
Butler was the aggressor from the outset, using quickness and heady play to counter Wisconsin's size advantage. The Bulldogs took a 6-5 lead on Vanzant's 3 from the corner and never trailed again.
While the Bulldogs shot 50 percent (12 of 24) in the opening 20 minutes, their defense was equally impressive. Wisconsin came in averaging only 7.5 turnovers per game, but had eight in the first half alone. Taylor, who entered the contest with the nation's best assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.18, had one assist and two turnovers to that point.
The Badgers' shooting woes only made matters worse. They missed 15 of their first 23 shots. They also uncharacteristically missed four of their first eight free throws after coming in with nation's best .823 free throw percentage.
Wisconsin wound up with 11 turnovers for the game and went 13 of 19 (68.4 percent) from the foul line.
"It was just kinda one of those nights. The ball just wasn't going through the hoop. It's frustrating," Taylor said. "They're scrappy and relentless. I don't know - they're just tough kids. They never quit and that's what makes them winners.
Butler began to gradually pull away when Smith scored inside and Chase Stigall turned a steal into a transition 3 to make it 23-16.
The Bulldogs later scored the final four points of the first half on Smith's free throw and Howard's second 3 in as many tries, giving Butler a 33-24 lead heading into the locker room.
Butler then scored the first nine points of the second half, with Mack scoring five during the spurt, to open up a 42-24 lead.
Soon after, Howard hit one of his three 3s and Andrew Smith added a layup to make it 47-27 with 11:32 to go.
Wisconsin made one last push when Mike Bruesewitz hit a driving layup with 3:21 to go. That sparked a 9-0 run that was capped by Taylor's 3, pulling Wisconsin to 53-49 with 1:38 left.
"That's human nature, a little bit," Stevens said of what he perceived as a letdown by his players after they had been firmly in control. "I really, in the moment, was disappointed in the way we played and now I don't care. Let's move on. That's the way I feel about it now. ... I'm not worried about it."
No stranger to late-game pressure, Butler maintained its composure. Mack came off a screen and drained a jumper from near the foul line, then Vanzant added a free throw to make it 56-49.
Taylor hit one last 3 with 34 seconds left to make it 56-52, but Butler made the free throws it need to put the game away.
"We just needed to put a few more minutes together here tonight so we could keep dancing. But the music stopped tonight," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "We wish Butler luck in their journey for what they're looking for."