Holding off a scorching-hot Seton Hall rally in the second half, senior Kellen Dunham and the Butler Bulldogs took care of business in their second-to-last regular season game with an 85-78 home victory.
For the second game in a row, the Bulldogs took a big early lead before nearly throwing it away in the game's final minutes. And for the second game in a row, the Bulldogs narrowly escaped with a win, holding off a late game surge to tack one more on to the resumé. While it was close, these late season victories are the only thing that matters to a team right on the tournament bubble. The bracket makers need to see wins, and quite frankly, they could care less how those wins happened.
That was what made tonight's game so astronomically important for Butler; it was their opportunity for a third win against a team in the RPI Top 50 (Cincinnati sits just outside at No. 51), and their second against the visiting Pirates. Having already disposed of the Pirates on the road last month before Seton Hall's four game win streak, including two in a row against Providence and Xavier, this was Butler's opportunity to send a message.
Early on, they did exactly that. Shooting 7-of-12 from three-point range in the first half while playing some stout defense against the Seton Hall backcourt, the Bulldogs went into the halftime break with a 15 point lead. Dunham, who finished with 22 points, dropped 16 of his total in the first half, including four triples. Pirates guard Isaiah Whitehead, making a push in a possible Big East POY bid, was held to just five points in the first half, smothered by Butler senior Roosevelt Jones, and struggling to take care of the ball. Everything was coming up Butler, but there was still 20 minutes of basketball to be played.
As it did on Saturday when the Bulldogs faced Georgetown, the script flipped a bit in the second half. For a total of 27, Whitehead scored 22 points in the second period, including some gorgeous floaters and massive makes from beyond the three-point line. The potent Butler defense disappeared, and on the offensive end, the Bulldogs went almost seven full minutes without a basket. During that time, the Pirates ripped off a 12-0 run, and things stayed close pretty much all the way to the finish.
Sophomore forward Tyler Wideman fouled out with just minutes to go, and yet another Whitehead bucket cut the Butler lead to just two with 1:27 remaining in the game. In the end it was Jones who played hero yet again for the Dawgs, dropping the game-sealing bucket at the 1:02 mark before extending the lead at the free throw line on the ensuing possession. It was at the stripe that the Bulldogs finished things up, eventually ending the game with a seven-point victory.
Jones finished with 20 points, five rebounds and five assists for the Bulldogs, and stud sophomore Kelan Martin added 13 points and nine boards. While Whitehead ended up taking 23 shots for the Pirates, the squad also received a big boost from both Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, who combined for 30 points on the night.
Looking ahead, the Bulldogs will close out their season at home against Marquette on Saturday, March 5, tipping off at 2:30 p.m. As for the Pirates, they'll finish up against DePaul on the road on Saturday, March 5, at 12:00 p.m.