INDIANAPOLIS -- No. 19 Butler understands what Indiana basketball is all about -- beating those in-state rivals.
Andrew Smith and Rotnei Clarke each scored 20 points, leading the team that took down then-No. 1 Indiana a week earlier past pesky Evansville 75-67 on Saturday -- a game that was every bit as challenging as any of those the Bulldogs have played against higher-profile opponents this season.
"The hardest part isn't necessarily those games," coach Brad Stevens said when asked about playing the likes of North Carolina and Illinois this season. "It's playing teams like Evansville, like Ball State, long-standing rivals in this state. So you've got to be on your 'A' game every time you play these guys and that's something a lot of people don't realize."
A year ago, Butler was the team taking it on the chin from its Indiana neighbors.
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The Bulldogs lost at Evansville in overtime, lost at Indiana, lost at Ball State, lost to Valparaiso twice and won only two games against Indiana schools -- 67-65 over Purdue at the Crossroads Classic and 75-54 against Indiana State at home.
This season, they've changed course.
The Bulldogs (9-2) beat Hanover, Ball State and IUPUI all by double digits in a three-game stretch. Now, they have back-to-back victories over the Hoosiers and Purple Aces. Saturday's win gave Butler a five-game sweep over in-state schools, and with the Atlantic 10 Conference opener scheduled for Jan. 9 at St. Joseph's, the Bulldogs won't face another Indiana school unless it comes in a postseason tournament.
"It's better than last year," Stevens said, drawing laughter. "It's important to me and it's important to these guys to play well against the teams in our state because we can play well against a team like Evansville and lose."
It almost happened again, though this clearly wasn't the Bulldogs' best game.
In Butler's first game since the stunning upset over the top-ranked Hoosiers, it committed an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers, went 4 of 16 on 3-pointers and got outrebounded on the offensive end. That's not The Butler Way.
But the Bulldogs were their usually resilient selves, fending off a sluggish start and each of Evansville's comeback attempts with a gritty team effort.
Smith had six rebounds and four assists in addition to his 20 points, all but four of those coming in the second half. Clarke added three rebounds and overcame five turnovers. Those two combined to make the final four free throws, ending Evansville's comeback attempt.
Freshman 3-point shooter Kellen Dunham showed he could put the ball on the floor, too, finishing with 13 points and five rebounds. Backup forward Kameron Woods, who had seen his playing time dwindle recently, had 10 points and 12 rebounds in what was easily his best game of the season.
And Roosevelt Jones fought through foul trouble to score 12 points.
Evansville couldn't overcome that combination.
"We've got to do a lot of little things better because against good basketball teams, they're going to punch you in the mouth," coach Marty Simmons said.
For the last two years, it was Evansville throwing the punches.
Last season they beat the Bulldogs in overtime in the first game at Ford Arena -- thanks in part to a questionable call at the end of regulation. Two years ago, at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Evansville got a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left and held on for a 71-68 win.
On Saturday, Colt Ryan scored 25 points and Ned Cox had 12 to lead the Purple Aces (7-5). They spent most of the game playing catch-up and almost came all the way back with a furious rally in the final minute that cut the lead to 71-67. Again, though, it fell short.
"We did some good things today and that was one of them, resiliency," Simmons said.
The Bulldogs had trouble pulling away, too.
Evansville cut an eight-point deficit to four by scoring the final four points of the first half, and after Butler built a 48-36 lead early in the second half, the Aces forced three turnovers and two missed shots on the Bulldogs' next five possessions. Suddenly, it was just 48-43.
A few minutes later, Butler appeared to put it away when Jones scored on a layup, Dunham drove in for a layup and followed that with a 19-footer, and Clarke ended the run with a 3-pointer to make it 64-50 with 4:26.
Evansville rallied one more time, getting a 3 from Ryan with 25 seconds left to make it 71-67, but Smith and Clarke made their free throws to finish off a 23-of-27 day from the line for Butler as it completed the Indiana sweep.
"For the most part, I think we've played pretty well this season. We've had some letdowns in those games [nine wins], but we're pretty happy with where we are this time of the year," Smith said. "Evansville is a very good team and can come out and beat anybody."