NEW ORLEANS — Wisconsin’s normally suffocating defense could not slow Matt Howard and Butler’s run toward a second straight Final Four appearance. If anything, the Bulldogs may be gaining momentum.
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 against the Badgers on Thursday night.
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 and now have knocked off another higher seed in fourth-seeded Wisconsin.
The victory sent Butler into the Southeast regional final, where the Bulldogs meet second-seeded Florida (29-7) on Saturday for a trip to the Final Four.
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.
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 in the first half.
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 a nation’s best 4.18 assist to turnover ration, had one assist and two turnovers to that point.
The Badgers also had trouble shooting, missing 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.
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.