MILWAUKEE -- Butler's back.
The scrappy school from Indianapolis that came within two points of a national title last season and weathered a rocky ride this season will return to the NCAA tournament owning another big winning streak.
Matt Howard scored 18 points and Shelvin Mack added 14 to lead the Bulldogs to a 59-44 victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Tuesday night for its third Horizon League tournament title in the past four years. Butler has won nine straight games overall.
"It doesn't get old. It's not easy to win this game, it really isn't," said Howard, the tournament MVP. "We knew it was going to be rocking in here. The key is to jump on them, and we had to jump on them. We talked about that."
Butler (23-9) will get a chance to be the talk of the nation again and duplicate its wild run last year to the NCAA championship game that ended with a loss to Duke.
In the process, the Bulldogs avenged losing to Milwaukee (19-13) for the third time this season.
"I thought we made some tough shots, I think we did some tough things," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "It doesn't hurt when somebody beats you twice. You're pretty on edge and also, you've got to change, you've got to do something different. And we did."
The Panthers got 10 points apiece from Tone Boyle, Tony Meier and Anthony Hill, but couldn't overcome a terrible shooting night, finishing 30 percent from the field. Milwaukee made its move when Ryan Allen's layup cut it to 42-39, but Butler answered with a 16-1 run and held the Panthers without a field goal for more than 7½ minutes.
"We didn't shoot the ball well, and we had some good looks," Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter said. "You're not going to win many games shooting the percentages that we shot. It's unfortunate it happened in this game."
Howard hit a layup, Shawn Vanzant added one and after a miss the Bulldogs got out in transition as Howard went through the lane for a two-handed slam that made it 48-39 with 8:13 left.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Chase Stigall and Mack put Butler ahead 54-40 with 5:21 left and well on its way to the school's seventh Horizon League tournament title.
"You can't be satisfied with where you are, just because you won a championship. There's more out there if you do the right things," Howard said. "We know what it takes, you can't relax now, I think that's key."
The Panthers mounted an 11-0 run early in the second half trailing by 15. Meier hit consecutive 3-pointers, the second when Butler's Andrew Smith fell into the crowd and made it a 5-on-4 on the other end.
On Milwaukee's next possession, Boyle was fouled beyond the arc and made all three free throws and Allen's layup made it 38-34 as the game tightened but the Panthers never rallied all the way back.
"It's been a trademark of our program I think to withstand the storm and just be resilient," Stevens said. "Last year in the tournament, that fairy tale would've never been written if we didn't have that trait."
Butler opened up a big lead using a 14-0 first-half run after a stifling defensive effort and outworked Milwaukee, never more apparent than when the Bulldogs got two offensive rebounds on one possession before Smith's layup put Butler ahead 33-20 at the half.
The Panthers, wearing bright, bumblebee-striped yellow shoes, were looking for their fourth NCAA tournament appearance and had handed the Bulldogs their worst loss in nearly six years in early January, a glimpse of promise in an up-and-down beginning to conference play.
Milwaukee fell to 9-11 after a bad loss to Valparaiso, questioning where their season was headed during a team meeting after midnight in a hotel in suburban Indianapolis. After the chat which lasted about three hours, the players responded with a win at Butler in overtime to start a streak of 10 wins in the next 11 games until Tuesday night's rematch.
Milwaukee will head to the NIT after winning the three-way tie for the Horizon League's regular-season title.
Since 1985, when the NCAA tournament expanded from 48 to 64 teams, only four teams that made the championship game the year before missed the tourney completely, most recently Ohio State in 2008.
That bubble the Bulldogs were on if they lost this game?
Butler popped it with this emphatic effort. The Bulldogs will once again be representing the Horizon League despite having as many black and blue moments as their uniforms this season.
Injuries on top of the departures of conference player of the year Gordon Hayward, Avery Jukes and Willie Veasley appeared to bring Butler down after a 14-9 start. Three players have missed time with concussions and Mack failed to finish several games early in the year with cramps.
Even Stevens had an issue.
He wore contacts that were too tight, causing vision problems that forced him out of a game just over a week ago. He was diagnosed with a swollen cornea and has come back to the sideline sporting glasses.
"These glasses are 2-0," Stevens noted. "I'm going to keep them."
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