MILWAUKEE (AP) — Butler coach Chris Holtmann had heard enough about Middle Tennessee.
The Blue Raiders were a trendy mid-major pick this year to bust NCAA Tournament brackets, a role Butler once assumed with regularity.
This time, the Bulldogs played the role of college basketball Goliath, and they brought Middle Tennessee’s feel-good story to a close.
Kelan Martin scored 19 points, and Butler played smothering defense on Middle Tennessee’s versatile scorers in a 74-65 victory Saturday night to advance to the regional semifinals. The Bulldogs (25-8) are going to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011, when they wrapped up back-to-back appearances in the national title game.
“I had a coach-friend send me a clip saying we weren’t good enough to beat Middle Tennessee. It absolutely burned me up,” Holtmann said. “There’s no question they were the trendy pick to beat us. We’re still here.”
Andrew Chrabascz added 15 points for fourth-seeded Butler, including a 3 with 3:25 left that snapped a 7-0 run for Middle Tennessee to get the lead back to 62-56.
The senior forward played an even more important role in helping to lead a sterling defensive effort for the Bulldogs.
Conference USA player of the year JaCorey Williams finished with 20 points, but had to work hard for nearly every bucket for No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee (31-5).
Giddy Potts, who averaged nearly 16 points a game this year, was held scoreless, going 0 of 8 from the field.
“We knew we (weren’t) going to the Sweet 16 without playing defense,” said guard Kethan Savage, who defended Potts for much of the night.
Two turnovers in the final 43 seconds ended a frustrating night for Middle Tennessee. Senior Reggie Upshaw, playing his final college game, paused briefly before heading down the tunnel, appearing to wipe tears from his face.
He played an instrumental role in helping Middle Tennessee win a school-record 31 games this season and get to two NCAA tourneys in his career.
“Our guys have had a lot of big games, but we were loose with the ball,” coach Kermit Davis said. “Our team just didn’t play with the identity we’ve played with all year.”
Middle Tennessee: Davis team will lose seniors Williams and Upshaw, 6-foot-8 athletic forwards who play key roles in the team’s 1-3-1 pressure defense. But the Blue Raiders have established themselves as a dangerous mid-major team after beating Michigan State and Minnesota in the first round in back-to-back years in the tournament.
ButlerThe 6-7 Chrabascz and 6-8 Tyler Wideman, the starting forwards, each sat for much of the latter part of the first half with foul trouble. They were on the bench when Middle Tennessee cut a 13-point lead with 4:28 to get to 36-31 at halftime, a spurt highlighted by six straight points by Williams at one point.
Antwain Johnson had a career-high 19 points off the bench for the Blue Raiders.
But the team failed to advance to the Sweet 16 for a second straight year after beating a Big Ten team each season. A win over Butler would have elevated their reputation as a rising mid-major school, similar to how the Bulldogs emerged to prominence earlier this decade with two trips to the national title game.
Another strong effort from the 3-point line lifted Butler on the offensive end, with Martin going 3 of 6 from behind the arc. Butler finished 8 of 15 (53 percent) from 3-point range after shooting 8 of 19 (42 percent) in the first round against Winthrop.
“We know how explosive they are. We were never relaxed in those moments. Even when they made the run, we knew we had to gather back together,” Chrabascz said.
It was a frustrating end to an otherwise good season for Potts, who was held scoreless for the first time this season. He averaged 15.8 points a game coming into the night.
“He was in the bathroom bawling by himself,” Davis said. “He thought he lost the game but he’s such a critical reason why we are here. … I hated for him that it happened on this stage tonight.”
Butler advanced to the South Regional semifinal on March 24 in Memphis against either North Carolina or Arkansas.