INDIANAPOLIS -- Forget the Senior Day festivities.
Butler junior Willie Veasley and his band of underclassmen had plenty to celebrate Saturday at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Veasley had a career-high 16 points and seven rebounds, and freshman Ronald Nored scored the last three points to rally Butler (No. 23 USA Today/ESPN, No. 24 AP) to a conference-championship clinching 58-56 victory over Cleveland State.
This was not just another victory for the Bulldogs. With the win, Butler, which has no seniors on its roster, claimed the Horizon League's outright title and now has home-court advantage for the conference tournament. Barely.
"That's what I was talking about when I said these guys have intestinal fortitude," coach Brad Stevens said. "They find ways to win."
The Bulldogs needed every bit of creativity to beat the conference's preseason favorite on Saturday.
At times, Butler (25-4, 15-3) seemed to be in complete control. At others, it was completely out of sync. The Bulldogs, who rank among the national leaders in fewest turnovers, committed 16 against the Vikings (21-10, 12-6) including four straight at the start of the second half.
They also came into the game shooting 73.3 percent from the free-throw line but were just 2-of-12 from the line in the second half. And after shooting 14-of-21 from the field in the first half, Butler was only 9-of-20 in the final 20 minutes.
It wasn't the way Butler intended to win its third straight regular-season title, and those flaws nearly cost them a chance to play at home in next week's semifinals and possibly the championship game.
Somehow, though, Butler fought back, holding Cleveland State scoreless for the final two minutes and getting the final three points from Nored to win it.
"It's hard when you get a 10-point lead with nine minutes to go, and the other team takes the lead from you," Stevens said. "But these guys hung in there, and I'm really proud of this group."
Cleveland State coach Gary Waters couldn't quibble with Stevens' assessment, saying it was fitting Butler won the title. He just thought the Vikings should have won the game.
They certainly had chances.
After trailing 50-40 with 9:34 to go, Cleveland State went on a 12-0 run to regain the lead, and when George Tandy drove in for a layup with 2:06 left, he drew a foul that could have extended the margin to three. Instead, he missed the shot and Cleveland State never recovered.
It missed two more shots after grabbing the rebound of Tandy's miss. Then J'Nathan Bullock missed a 15-foot baseline jumper with 21 seconds left, Norris Cole missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds and Trevon Harmon's desperation 80-foot heave fell well short as the buzzer sounded. Cole led the Vikings with 17 points and Bullock finished with 13 points and eight rebounds.
"We could have won the game, and we should have won the game," Waters said. "He (Cole) got fouled. But the guy slipped underneath him."
Butler forward Matt Howard, who had 12 points and jumped in front of Cole's potential winner, even acknowledged he got away with one.
"I don't know how smart it was," Howard said. "I came close to getting a foul. I'm sure our bodies made contact but I tried to stay as straight up as possible."
For Butler, it was more of a relief than a celebration. After dominating the league all season, Butler, which starts three freshmen and a sophomore, lost three of its first six games in February and put what seemed a certain conference title in jeopardy.
They rebounded by winning their last three to clinch it in atypical fashion.
After Cleveland State got within 42-38 with 15 minutes to go, Butler responded with an 8-2 run in which Veasley and Howard accounted for all of the points.
The Vikings answered with three straight 3-pointers, two from Cedric Jackson, who finished with 11 points, and Harmon followed that with a putback to give Cleveland State the lead. When Jackson made 1-of-2 free throws to make it 52-50, Butler appeared to be in trouble with 2:06 to play.
But freshman Gordon Hayward ended a stretch of eight straight missed free throws by making 1-of-2 to get the Bulldogs within 56-55. Butler then forced a turnover and Nored scored on a rebound to give the Bulldogs a 57-56 lead with 53.9 seconds left.
Cleveland State ran the shot clock before Cole's miss, Butler grabbed the rebound and Nored made 1 of 2 free throws at the other end.
"I think this one does mean more than last year since no one picked us to win it all," Veasley said. "We showed everyone we could."
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