NEW YORK (AP) — Butler must win four games in four days for a title in its first — and perhaps last — Atlantic 10 tournament.
Doesn’t sound too crazy for the little school that made two straight NCAA championship games.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs, who missed out on a bye in the deep A-10, pulled away late to beat Dayton 73-67 in the first round Thursday.
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“Tournament tough — that’s just kind of the word you have to use when you deal with those guys,” Flyers coach Archie Miller said.
Butler (25-7, 11-5) rode its 3-point shooting — and 3-point defense — to advance to face fourth-seeded La Salle in Friday’s quarterfinals. The Bulldogs were 10 for 24 from behind the arc, while the Flyers attempted just four 3-pointers.
Rotnei Clarke had 21 points and five assists to lead Butler, going 6 of 12 on 3-pointers. Fellow senior Andrew Smith had 18 points and six rebounds.
“They set great screens for me,” Clarke said of his teammates. “Especially when I’m off the ball and in transition, I got a couple of looks, and it’s all from these guys. They look for me when I’m open. It’s really an unselfish team.”
Josh Benson had 18 points to lead 12th-seeeded Dayton (17-14, 7-9).
The Flyers were up 43-39 with less than 14 minutes left before Butler hit 3-pointers on three straight possessions to take the lead for good.
“When they came out and they hit three 3-pointers, that kind of changed the rhythm of the game,” Dayton senior guard Kevin Dillard said.
It was 55-50 with just over seven minutes left when Erik Fromm, who came in averaging 3.4 points, made the Bulldogs’ next four baskets as Butler started to pull away.
Running the floor, the 6-foot-8 Fromm had a fast-break layup on a feed from Alex Barlow and a dunk on a pass from Roosevelt Jones. He made a 3-pointer sandwiched in between, and when Fromm scored inside with 4:26 to go, the Bulldogs led 64-54.
Those nine points were all Fromm scored in the game in 10 minutes.
“I thought the series of plays where Fromm was in the middle of them — the 3 he hit, a couple of effort play points that he had — kind of separated the game,” coach Brad Stevens said.
Butler, the national runner-up in 2010 and ’11, could be headed along with Dayton to join the breakaway Big East basketball schools.
The Bulldogs lost at La Salle 54-53 on Jan. 23 on a last-second shot in their only meeting of the season. Clarke missed that game with a severely sprained neck.
But the Explorers will have plenty to play for Friday as an NCAA bubble team. The Bulldogs have no such worries because of nonconference wins over top-ranked Gonzaga, No. 3 Indiana and No. 12 Marquette.
Their run to the Maui Invitational final in November — with games against Marquette, North Carolina and Illinois on consecutive days — is the perfect groundwork for this time of year.
“This is why you play in Maui. … Everything you do in the nonconference, from a scheduling standpoint, is to prepare you for now,” Stevens said.
The Bulldogs will need to be sharper than they were Thursday if they want to hang around at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center any longer. The Flyers outscored Butler 48-28 in the paint.
Dillard scored inside and hit a 3-pointer to give the Flyers the four-point lead early in the second half. He finished with 15 points but had five turnovers.
“I think we weren’t really playing hard enough,” Smith said. “We were taking plays off and we were letting them score too easily inside. Obviously you see they outscored us 48-28. You’re not going to win a whole lot of games doing that. We were pretty fortunate. We ended up playing pretty hard, pretty well over the last 15 minutes, but definitely need to improve on the first 25.”