LEXINGTON, Ky. — Back and forth went Marquette and Butler, trading makes and misses in a high intensity rematch that made a case for being the best game so far of this NCAA tournament.
In the end, Vander Blue and the Golden Eagles advanced as the Bulldogs couldn’t muster any more of their March magic.
Blue scored 19 second-half points to rally third-seeded Marquette out of another hole, and the Golden Eagles survived 74-72 on Saturday to reach the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
“I know everybody in our team, we weren’t ready to go home,” said Blue, who made a last-second layup to win Marquette’s first game of this tournament. “We had two close games — we had a lot of those this year. What we went through earlier this year prepared us for this weekend.”
Like November’s first meeting between the teams at the Maui Invitational, won 72-71 by Butler on Rotnei Clarke’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer, it came down to the final shot. Only this time, Butler missed.
“The difference in the game was the level of pressure they put on us in the second half and certainly the shots they made,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “They had a few I didn’t think were going in that bounced in.
“Our guys gave great effort on both ends of the floor. Our guys played their hearts out. I told them they had nothing to be ashamed about.”
Marquette (25-8) will meet the winner of Sunday’s game between Illinois and Miami on Thursday in the East Regional semifinals at Washington, D.C.
“We could have easily been beat by Davidson,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “We could easily have been beaten tonight. Our character, toughness and the resiliency of our guys is maybe unlike any team I’ve ever been around. I stand at attention and respect for how those kids are…
“It’s just another Marquette game. We’re not good enough to blow anybody out. We’re just good enough to get blown out. And if we can turn it into a fight and make it ugly, then it probably trends toward it helps us the most.”
It will be Marquette’s third consecutive round of 16 appearance, but the Golden Eagles are seeking to move past that round for the first time since 2003, when Dwyane Wade led them to the Final Four.
“There were multiple times we could have gave up,” Blue said. “But there’s something about this group. We’re relentless and we want to win. We’re not ready to go home yet.”
Blue finished with 29 points
Clarke’s 24 points led Butler (28-9).
Blue, the junior whose last-second layup edged Davidson on Thursday, led the Golden Eagles’ rally from a 35-27 halftime deficit and tied the game at 69 on 3-pointer with 1:25 remaining.
That set the stage for more late-game drama by his teammates.
After Jamil Wilson’s two free throws made it 71-69, Davante Gardner deflected Clarke’s pass intended for Kellen Dunham underneath and then made the first of three late free throws for 74-70 lead with 4.7 seconds left.
After Wilson’s goaltend on what would have been a layup by Andrew Smith cut the lead to two 2 seconds later, Blue almost became the goat by throwing away the inbounds pass intended for Wilson with 2.9 seconds left.
The Bulldogs, who seem to win every close game at this time of year, couldn’t get a good last look. Smith took an off-balance 3 from up top that was way off, slamming into the backboard and setting off another Marquette celebration.
“We were trying to get a look for a 3,” Butler guard Alex Barlow said the final shot. “If that wasn’t open, we had options off of that. Marquette did a great job guarding it and unfortunately Andrew was unable to make the shot.”
This could be the start of quite a rivalry. Next year, Butler joins the new Big East with Marquette.
Stevens’ Bulldogs, who reached the championship game in 2010 and ‘11, won’t make the second weekend this year.
“You can control some things, you can’t control others,” Stevens said. “We’re going to go back and wish we controlled a few things little bit better. … We talk about all the close wins … but the only commercial I ever see is a close loss, Butler vs. Duke (in the 2010 championship).
“We’ve been here before, we’ve lived it. And we’ll move on.”
Blue shot 9 of 15 from the field with three from long range, finishing just four points off his career high. Trent Lockett and Wilson each added 13 points for Marquette, which shot 23 of 54 (43 percent) and was 5 of 12 from beyond the arc.
The Bulldogs’ defense also held Clarke to just six second-half points after he seemed ready to dominate the game by himself. Smith finished with 17 points.
The outcome ended up as another example of Blue’s leadership and clutch play, but until then it deemed destined to be decided by the last team with the ball.
Marquette ultimately had the final word, thanks to 59 percent shooting in the second half while forcing 10 turnovers with three steals by Blue. Butler finished at 42 percent but didn’t have the same easy looks as in the first half.
Dictating the tempo on both ends was the Golden Eagles’ main objective, especially creating shots inside the arc.
Both teams succeeded to an extent in a fast-paced first 10 minutes, with Marquette moving the ball around to get the two-point baskets it thrives on. The movement worked so well for the Golden Eagles that Wilson — Thursday’s other hero — and Lockett were open for 3-pointers, and made them.
Butler hit 3 of 17 from 3 in an opening win against Bucknell, but the Bulldogs found their range against Marquette. Clarke made three of Butler’s seven 3-pointers in the first half.
Long shots came in handy since the Bulldogs struggled from elsewhere. They were 4 of 16 on 2-pointers.
Butler was still better than Marquette (7 of 27), which finished the first half frustrated by the Bulldogs’ defense that contested everything near the basket. During one 40-second sequence before the break the Golden Eagles missed five straight shots including one from outside, sending them to the locker room trailing 35-27.
Blue’s 3-pointer soon after the break was part of his 10 points during a 21-14 run that got Marquette within 49-48. He later scored consecutive baskets off turnovers to give the Golden Eagles a 60-58 with 7:07 left, their first lead since early in the game.