NEW ORLEANS - Wisconsin's normally suffocating defense could not slow Matt Howard and Butler's run toward a second straight Final Four appearance. If anything, the Bulldogs may be gaining momentum.
After narrowly surviving its first two NCAA tournament games by margins of two points or fewer, Butler led by 20 points before holding on for a 61-54 victory over the Badgers on Thursday.
Howard had 20 points and 12 rebounds, Shelvin Mack scored 13 points and Shawn Vanzant 10 for the eighth-seeded Bulldogs (26-9), who upset top-seeded Pittsburgh by one point in the second round and now have knocked off another higher seed in fourth-seeded Wisconsin.
The victory sent Butler into the Southeast Regional final to face second-seeded Florida (29-7) on Saturday for a trip to the Final Four.
Jordan Taylor scored 22 for Wisconsin (25-9), which shot 30.4 percent (17 of 56). Jon Leuer, one of the Badgers’ top offensive forces with 18.7 points per game coming in, was 1-for-12 shooting and finished with three points.
Butler was the aggressor from the outset, using quickness and heady play to counter Wisconsin’s size advantage. The Bulldogs took a 6-5 lead on Vanzant’s 3 from the corner and never trailed again in the first half.
While the Bulldogs shot 50 percent (12-for-24) in the opening 20 minutes, their defense was equally impressive. Wisconsin came in averaging 7.5 turnovers per game, but had eight in the first half alone. Taylor, who entered the contest with the nation’s best assist to turnover ratio (4.18), had one assist and two turnovers to that point.
The Badgers also had trouble shooting, missing 15 of their first 23 shots. They missed four of their first eight free throws after coming in with nation’s best free throw percentage (.823).
Butler began to gradually pull away when Smith scored inside and Chase Stigall turned a steal into a transition 3 to make it 23-16. The Bulldogs scored the final four points of the first half, and led 33-24, then scored the first nine points of the second half to open a 42-24 lead.