No. 11 Butler hangs on to oust Davidson

Maybe No. 11 Butler had opening-day jitters.

Or perhaps the problem was just facing another strong mid-major program so early in the season.

Whatever the explanation, the Bulldogs strung together a 15-4 closing run to pull away from Davidson 73-62 on Saturday.

“It’s a lot of fun, but I’m sure there are some anxious moments and that’s OK,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “This game is not going to define who you are, win or lose, but it gives you a lot to work on.”

Clearly, the Bulldogs (1-0) have plenty of things to clean up before heading to Northwestern on Wednesday.

Butler, which has gone to three straight NCAA tournaments and came into the game with the highest preseason ranking in school history, has built its reputation on playing almost flawless basketball.

It has consistently ranked among the national leaders in fewest turnovers, points allowed, 3-pointers and free-throw differential. On Saturday, the Bulldogs struggled with all of those facets early.

The Bulldogs committed seven of their 10 turnovers in the first half, a span in which it also committed 11 fouls and was shooting only 31.8 percent through the first 16 1/2 minutes.

Eventually, the players started playing Butler basketball.

Gordon Hayward finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, Willie Veasley added 15 points and Matt Howard and first-time starter Shawn Vanzant each scored 10.

Each contributed to the two key runs that changed the game – the first late in the first half, the other coming midway through the second half.

“I don’t know about the expectations, I just think we had so much time playing against one another, we were just excited for the season to start,” Veasley said. “As a group, we were ready. You could tell with our fight throughout the game, we were just anxious.”

Davidson took advantage of the miscues but eventually wore down.

The Wildcats, playing their first game since losing Stephen Curry to the NBA, were led by Ben Allison with 13 points and Brendan McKillop with 11.

They jumped to a quick 20-10 lead in the first half and still led by 10 with 3 1/2 minutes to go in the half. Then, after falling behind early in the second half, they rallied to take a 58-56 lead with 9:37 left before succumbing to Butler‘s decisive run but didn’t have enough to close it out.

After losing 59 percent of its scoring and 44 percent of its rebounding from last season, coach Bob McKillop called it an encouraging start.

“When you see 18 points off (our) turnovers, that’s the story of the game to me, their ability to create some chaos on the catch, I would say led to eight to 10 points,” said McKillop, who has five straight 20-wins seasons. “But it’s a new experience for all of us. Everyone is adapting to new roles.”

Butler is the exception. It didn’t lose anybody from last season’s team, which made its third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

You wouldn’t have from the start.

With the Bulldogs out of sync, the Wildcats still had a 31-21 lead with 3 1/2 minutes to go in the half.

That’s when things began to unravel.

Shelvin Mack started the closing flurry with two free throws, and Vanzant hit a 3. After Mack drove in for a layup, then connected on 1 of 2 free throws, Veasley hit back-to-back 3s to give the Bulldogs a 35-33 lead.

Hayward closed out the half with two more free throws to make it 37-35 and suddenly Davidson was in trouble.

“We let our guard down a little bit, I think it came a little too easy, we took shots too early and they capitalized on every one,” McKillop said.

The Bulldogs were only getting started.

Veasley opened the second half with another and two free throws from Howard made it 42-35.

Davidson, however, hung around, closing to 54-52 with 11:33 to go and finally taking a 55-54 lead when JP Kuhlman hit a 3 with 10:42 left.

After trading a basket for another Davidson 3, Butler finally took charge.

Hayward’s layup with 9:20 to go ignited a 12-0 run that sealed the outcome.

“It’s great opening against a team like this,” Stevens said. “You have to do everything well to compete against them. I’m talking about entering the ball out of bounds, moving from side-to-side. I’m a real admirer of the program. These are two good teams.”