Butler surges past UTEP in 2nd half
SAN JOSE, CALIF.
When Shelvin Mack made a steal and quickly hit a 3-pointer in the opening minute of the second half, he had a good feeling Butler could shake its opening-game jitters.
By the time Mack sank his career-best seventh 3-pointer in the final seconds, he had made sure the Bulldogs were on their way in an NCAA tournament they hope will end with a hometown Final Four.
Mack scored 18 of his career high-tying 25 points after halftime Thursday, leading fifth-seeded Butler’s second-half surge in a 77-59 victory over UTEP in the first round of the West Regional.
Gordon Hayward added 13 points and Matt Howard 11 as the Bulldogs (29-4) won their 21st straight game to extend the sport’s longest active winning streak — but only after a dynamic rally from a six-point halftime deficit.
They were led by Mack, the sophomore guard who hit six 3-pointers on seven shots in the second half. Butler expertly spaced the floor and made patient passes with usual disciplined style, leaving even the talented Miners unable to keep up.
“It’s a great opportunity to do it on this stage,” Mack said. “You’ve got to knock it down like it’s open gym. ... My teammates did a good job giving me the ball. My job is to knock down shots when I’m open. That’s what I did.”
Butler advanced to face 13th-seeded Murray State, which surprised Vanderbilt 66-65 on a buzzer-beater by Danero Thomas.
Although the Final Four is still two weeks away, the players from this Indianapolis school already have considered how cool it would be to play in front of their hometown fans. The Shark Tank crowd, still hopping with energy from the Racers’ upset, also gave the small-school Bulldogs most of its cheers.
Derrick Caracter had 20 points and nine rebounds for UTEP, which won 16 straight games and a regular-season league title before a tournament loss to Houston last Saturday. The Miners (26-7) were a popular NCAA upset pick after the Conference USA power received a surprisingly low seed in the tournament.
“I’m not going to let these guys hang their heads,” UTEP coach Tony Barbee said.
UTEP led 33-27 at halftime before the Bulldogs made a 22-4 run led by Mack, who hit five 3-pointers in the first 11 minutes while the defense harassed Caracter into ineffectiveness. Mack added his last 3-pointer with 32 seconds left, boosting the Bulldogs’ lead to a game-high 21 points.
“I think it’s deflating for any team when a team is suffocating you defensively and then going down and making almost every shot,” Howard said.