INDIANAPOLIS — The Siena Saints, with a two-point lead in the second half and Butler’s big man Matt Howard in foul trouble, looked poised to pull an upset over the No. 18 Bulldogs in front of 9,111 partisan fans in Hinkle Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon.
But it was Howard’s absence that helped spark an 18-5 Butler run as the Bulldogs beat Siena (22-6) going away 70-53 in a nationally-televised ESPN BracketBuster game. It was the Saints worse loss this season since an 82-65 road defeat to Northern Iowa on Dec. 12.
It was Butler’s 17th consecutive victory as both teams head into the final week of its regular season schedule.
“They’re different than some of the teams we’ve played,” Siena coach Fran McCaffery said of Butler (25-4). “They very well may be the best in the sense that they really don’t make mistakes. If you’re going to beat them, you’ll have to play the perfect game.”
Siena led 34-32 at the time, but Shelvin Mack hit a jumper and Gordon Hayward converted a three-point play on consecutive possessions to put the Bulldogs back up.
Backup guard Zach Hahn was inserted when Howard left the game and connected on back-to-back 3-point shots that turned on the boisterous Hinkle crowd and sapped much of any momentum Siena had left.
“That opened up the game for them,” said Siena’s Ryan Rossiter, who scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds. “It was a three-point game and a couple seconds later it was a nine-point game and we never recovered from that.”
Butler coach Brad Stevens said the move to go with Hahn and a smaller lineup was out of necessity with Howard’s foul trouble, but admitted that the change turned the tide.
“What it did was put us in a situation where we could stay big or go small and make an adjustment” Stevens said. “Small ended up being good for us because Zach came in and hits some big three’s for us. Shelvin and Zach hit three’s and that changed the landscape of the game.”
Before that point, Siena seemed up to the task of handling Butler.
The Saints overcame an early first-half deficit behind the scoring of Clarence Jackson to take a 31-28 lead into halftime. Jackson scored 14 of the Saints’ first 16 points.
Jackson finished with a game-high 24 points, one off his season-high 25 points against UAlbany back on Dec. 5.
In the second half, though, Butler began to pack the paint and dared the Saints to beat them with jumpers. Siena finished the game shooting 33.9 percent from the field (20-59) and just 23.3 percent in the second half (7-30).
“Clarence was the reason why we were up at halftime,” McCaffery said. “He made some shots and they started guarding him differently, which gave everyone else a little more space. In the second half, they packed it in and we were ineffective. Their team has great help defense so (Jackson’s) decisions on when to go and when to jump stop were really good.
Mack led Butler with 23 points followed by Hayward’s 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Siena’s leading scorer Alex Franklin struggled with Butler’s sagging defense in the middle and scored just seven, almost 10 points off his 16.3 points per game average.
“Any loss is a missed opportunity,” Franklin said. “It would have been a great win for us, but we fell short. We needed to drive the ball more but any time a team packs it in as much as they did it’s going to be hard.”
Siena wraps up its regular season with two games next week, Friday at Rider and Sunday at home against Marist.