December 4th, 2008 – The Wolstein Center in Cleveland. Cleveland State leads by seven points at the half over the undefeated Butler Bulldogs. Despite shooting just 1-11 from three point land and 26% from the field, a J’Nathan Bullock layup gave the Vikings a 48-47 lead with just a five seconds left.
Then, little used Butler guard Zach Hahn received a pass at the three-point lined, turned a jacked up a shot as the clock hit all zeroes. It bottomed. Butler wins 50-48 in a game that changed hands three teams in the last 19 seconds.
February 28, 2009 – Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. #23 Butler seems in control from the opening tip against Cleveland State in a nationally televised game on ESPN2. They led by 11 with less than two minutes to go in the first half and took a 10 point lead at 50-40 with just over nine minutes to play. In a raukous Hinkle Fieldhouse on Senior Day, many teams would have folded.
Not Gary Waters Vikes.
Behind a trifecta of trifecta’s (two from Cedric Jackson, one from Bullock), CSU hit Butler with a 12-0 run to take an improbable 52-50 lead. A Ronald Nored free throw gave Butler a 58-56 lead with 17 seconds left. Waters knew what he wanted to do. The Bulldogs hit a buzzer-beating three to beat his team three months earlier on his home floor. Turn-about had to be fair-play, didn’t it?
Waters called for Norris Cole, his best deep shooter, to come around two set of screens for a three-point attempt. The play was drawn-up beautifully, except conference Player of the Year, Butler’s Matt Howard, read it perfectly and blocked Cole’s attempt, killing CSU’s chance at a W over their heated rival. Final Score: Butler 58 Cleveland State 56
March 10th, 2009 – The Horizon League Tournament Finals at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The stage is set again for a rematch of last year’s final and the two hotly contested regular season matchup between the league’s two toughest teams. The two were separated by just three points in Butler’s two wins.
At 25-4, the 16th ranked Bulldogs are an NCAA Tournament lock. They have wins over Northwestern, Xavier, UAB, and a 15-3 conference record in a Horizon League that was as good as it has ever been. Howard is the signature player in the conference, a 6-8, 230 lb load who can beat you inside and out. Freshmen Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack have more than accounted for the loss of Mike Green and A.J. Graves in Brad Stevens’ three-guard attack, both averaging double figures. They still love to shoot the three (35% as a team), but everything they do offensively runs through Howard.
Cleveland State has had a tougher road getting to the conference finals. Unlike Butler, who received two byes into the semi-finals, the Vikings have had to win three games in five nights to get here. First they knocked off Detroit 56-43 last Tuesday in Cleveland. They traveled to Indianapolis to take-down UIC in the quarters 67-64 in a game where they trailed by nine with five minutes to play. They met second-seeded Green Bay and trailed by six at the half, before locking down Ryan Tillema and company in the second stanza to win 73-67 and advance to the finals.
If the Vikes are going to win tonight, a few things are going to have to happen. First, they are going to have to withstand the intense atmosphere at Hinkle. The fabled gym where the final scene in Hoosiers was filmed is never an easy place to win thanks to a rabid fan-base. “It is different than other places,” said Howard. “There is the uniqueness and the tradition.” CSU point guard Cedric Jackson must keep the turnovers to a minimum and stay under control. Pounding the post with Bullock, George Tandy, and Chris Moore is a must to not only attempt to get Howard in foul trouble, but to open up the perimeter for Cole, Jackson, Jeremy Montgomery, and the aptly named Trey Harmon.This is how they climbed back into the game in Indy two weeks ago.
Defensively, Bullock must out-physical Howard, which he can do. The emotional leader of the team, Bullock is maybe the strongest post player in the conference. He held Howard to seven points in their first matchup and 12 in the second. No doubt he will get help from Tandy. Without defensive stalwart D’Aundrey Brown (out with an injury), Defensive Player of the Year Jackson, Harmon, and Cole will have to keep the Butler three-point shooters at bay.
You can bet Gary Waters will have his team ready. This is a club with five seniors who have been through it all, especially Bullock who almost transferred out after Mike Garland was fired three years ago. Butler stole their dream shot at the Big Dance last year. They don’t want that to happen again.
“We only talk about the NCAA,” Waters said. “No one says ‘NIT.’ “