Gritty Butler finds a way — again

DAYTON, Ohio — The leading scorer goes to the hospital in the first half, yet Butler still wins?

Scratch yet another off the list of potential ways lots of talented college basketball teams have been compiling on how to try to beat the Butler Bulldogs. It’s getting to be a a real bare-bones list.

After losing its best player, Rotnei Clarke, to a scary injury that turned out to be a neck sprain on Saturday afternoon, Butler took a collective deep breath. Then, Brad Stevens pulled some more 6-foot-nothing (and under) guys off his bench, and the kind of gutty, scrappy, relentless team that pushed this program to back-to-back national title games in 2010 and 2011 put together an effort that would make those teams of the past proud.

Dayton got back in it late, but too late. The final score was 79-73, moving this current Butler team to 2-0 in its new league. No. 17 Butler hasn’t lost since before Thanksgiving and has won 11 straight in all.

Clarke was taken to the hospital after a steal and scoring opportunity ended with a hard foul by Dayton’s Matt Derenbecker with 8:13 left in the first half. Though he was moving his arms, head and legs, paramedics stabilized Clarke on a backboard and placed him in a neck brace before he was taken by stretcher to an ambulance, then to a local hospital for X-rays.

Stevens didn’t stick around for even a full minute after the game, hustling out of University of Dayton Arena to get to the hospital to be with Clarke. He’s seen this stuff before, and in two Atlantic 10 road wins this week he’s seen a team that might be hitting its peak, one that’s efficient and unselfish and doesn’t look like much, but seems to get every big rebound and always makes the extra pass.

In his six seasons on the job, Stevens’ teams have won 81 percent of their games.

“For whatever reason, we didn’t have enough pop today,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “And a lot of that goes to Butler, because they have that ability to sap your spirit at both ends.

“We had some guts there to make a few runs, but we weren’t good enough against an excellent team.”

With Clarke out, Butler needed every point it got from the 10 different players who scored them. Six-foot-4 bulldozer Roosevelt Jones scored 16 and had 7 rebounds, both team highs, but Andrew Smith’s 13 points and work on timely offensive rebounds were just as important. Senior backup Chase Stigall was called upon with Clarke out, and he buried two very big 3-pointers in the second half.

Butler led by two when Clarke was injured, but pushed that to 11 in just over three minutes. A dunk by Khyle Marshall, who had 12 points, pushed the lead to 14 early in the second half. There’s just something about this Butler team that allows the Bulldogs to stay a step ahead, handle momentum changes and keep winning.

Different year, different circumstances, different conference — and Saturday provided a very tough environment.

Same result.

“We’re out there fighting for the next play, the next loose ball, the next basket,” Smith said. “I don’t know if past games or past years mean anything. We try to play smart, we try to learn from our mistakes. Today (Dayton) had a bunch more rebounds (40-26) than we did, but we got some big ones. We lost our best scorer and other guys came in and stepped up.”

“There came a point that we just wanted to win it for Rotnei. It’s hard to see that, and it’s hard to not know for sure if he’s OK. We had to lock in and just focus on finishing the game, on getting the win the way he’d want us to.”

Clarke, a transfer from Arkansas, came into the game averaging 17 points per game and is the second-most accurate 3-point shooter in the country at 44 percent. Five different Butler players ended up making at least one 3-pointer for Butler on the day. Stigall made two of his three tries in the second half after not taking a shot in five first-half minutes.

Stigall came in averaging 1.6 points per game on the season. Butler ended up with 27 bench points on the day and, with Clarke out, made enough extra passes to get 30 points in the paint, too. Smith stepped out of the paint to make a 3-pointer that extended the lead to eight, 68-60, and knocked the wind out of Dayton with 4:45 to go.

“We have a lot of guys who can shoot it,” Smith said. “It was time for the other guys to pick up the load.”

A CT scan showed Clarke has no structural damage, no spinal cord injury and no fractures.

“He’s in plenty of pain,” Butler head athletic trainer Ryan Gulloy said. “He was hurting. He’s lucky it isn’t worse. He was emotional more than anything.”

Gulloy said Clarke wanted to return to the arena, and Stevens sent word back from the hospital that Clarke might even be discharged in time to ride back to Indianapolis with his team. Butler plays its first A-10 home game next Wednesday, then hosts No. 8 Gonzaga next Saturday.

There’s a chance Clarke will be back for that game.

With this Butler program, just about anything is possible.