ESPN/AP: INDIANAPOLIS — No. 9 Butler needed a full half of basketball against Rhode Island to shake off its worst performance of the year at Saint Louis and find its top-10 form.
The Bulldogs overcame a poor first half to beat the Rams 75-68 on Saturday after playing their worst game of the season at Saint Louis earlier this week.
Rotnei Clarke led Butler with 23 points. Roosevelt Jones added 18 points — 13 in the second half.
Clarke did the bulk of his scoring in the first 11 of minutes of the second half, pacing Butler (18-4, 5-2 Atlantic 10) through a 15-3 run that proved too big of a deficit for the Rams to overcome. Clarke scored 12 points in the swing.
Mostly, Clarke looked like his usual self, after committing a season-high six turnovers in a 75-58 loss against Saint Louis. Since coming back from a neck injury suffered on Jan. 12 at Dayton, Clarke had committed 10 turnovers in the two games.
“Last couple of games I just made careless mistakes with the ball, getting it to guys in the wrong spots,” Clarke said. “I’ve got to just be smarter.”
Nikola Maleseciv scored 18 points for Rhode Island (6-14, 1-6) in its fourth straight loss. The Rams held a 32-30 advantage at halftime.
The Rams shot only 30 percent from the field in the second half, keeping themselves in the game at the foul line. They went 21 of 24 from the free throw line in the second period, after only four attempts in the first half.
The Butler lead swelled as far as 67-54 with about 4 1/2 half minutes to play, but the Rams used 11 points on free throws to make things interesting down the stretch.
It was a familiar position for them, as Rhode Island had lost its last three games by a combined 10 points.
“They’re a very hard out as you can see,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “They haven’t played a game in league that hasn’t been decided by more than four points. They’ve got skilled guys who can spread you out.”
Butler played the opposite game — sputtering through the first half. Khyle Marshall kept his team in the game with a series of high-flying dunks and hustle plays that produced 10 of the Bulldogs’ first 12 points.
“The difference between the second half beginning and the first half ending was we hit shots in the paints that we weren’t hitting before,” Stevens said.
Butler’s season-high 23 turnovers were much to blame for the blowout loss to the Billikens.
“We had different kinds of turnovers today,” Stevens said. “Turnovers where we were being aggressive.”
Butler played without forward Erik Fromm, a junior, whose father died of cancer earlier in the day.
“It’s hard, these guys are really tight,” Stevens said. “They know each other’s parents and they appreciate all the support they get from each other. It’s a really hard thing.”
The Rams have dropped four in a row since winning 82-80 in overtime at Saint Louis on Jan. 19. They have now lost 25 straight against top-25 opponents, with their last winning coming against No. 21 Utah on Dec. 2, 1998.
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The first half was almost perfect execution for the Rams. They were getting offensive rebounds and turning them into second-chance points and hitting their shots. They knew it was a big game against a very good opponent. They were running high on adrenaline and kept up with the aggressive play of the Bulldogs.
Then came the half. The extended break and rest allowed the adrenaline to subside and URI came out incredibly flat in the second half. Not scoring for 5 minutes, sloppy turnovers, and no offensive rhythm.
That second half could have been a complete disaster. Powell showing that he still has a lot to work on to become a good PG, URI still showing that they have trouble in-bounding the ball. The one thing URI does have, is “grit and balls,” to quote Kevin Garnett. They always fight hard. They scrap and claw their way back into games. Butler was showing why they are ranked #9 as Rotnei Clark just took over the game and URI had no answer for him…or Khyle Marshall for that matter. But like many other times this season, URI took the punch to the mouth and got right back up and starting throwing punches of their own.
Have to hand it to Butler though, they gathered themselves after URI came storming back to bring it the lead down to 4 and closed the game out by effectively killing the clock and hitting clutch free throws.
Hopefully Butler remains in the A-10 and URI will get a chance for a rematch next season with the transfers being eligible and a good, deep bench. Until then, Butler is a very good, tough team who plays tough aggressive defense that will likely carry them deep into the A-10 tournament and into the NCAA Tournament.