BUFFALO, N.Y. - A.J. Graves can’t grow any wider or taller, and the junior point guard doesn’t believe Butler will ever shed its mid-major label.
But boy, can the Bulldogs pull off a surprise or two once they get into the NCAA tournament.
Goodbye, Maryland. Welcome back, Butler: the tiny Indiana school that clinched its second trip to the round of 16 in four years with a 62-59 win over the Terrapins on Saturday.
Graves led the way, scoring 19 points, including a crucial 3-point basket with 2:09 left.
“Man, it was amazing,” said Graves, who’s generously listed at 6-foot-1. “To be put in a position like that to make a big play and to have teammates backing up and supporting you, it was just an amazing feeling.”
Butler (29-6), the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Regional, advanced to face the winner of Sunday’s Florida- Purdue game next week in St. Louis, and improved to 7-6 in seven tournament appearances — six since 1997.
“I think we’ve proven we can play with anybody,” added forward Brandon Crone, who scored 13 points. “This means everything.”
Maryland (25-9), making its first tournament appearance since 2004, has not advanced past the second round since 2003. The Terps were undone by an aggressive and smaller team, which kept their offense out of rhythm.
Graves in particular outplayed Maryland star swingman, D.J. Strawberry, who failed to score a point in the first half and finished with eight.
Mike Jones led Maryland with 21 points, but they had only one other player — James Gist with 13 — in double-digits. That’s unusual for a team that entered the game averaging nearly 80 points.
“We had good looks in the first half and couldn’t score,” Gist said. “We knew we made some mistakes, and some of those mistakes cost us the game.”
Butler never trailed after going up 39-36 on Drew Streicher’s 3-point basket five minutes into the second half and hung on in a game Maryland rallied back to tie four times.
Crone scored with three minutes left to put the Bulldogs ahead 58-56. Then, after Maryland’s Ekene Ibekwe missed a 6-footer, Graves hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to all but seal the victory.
After Strawberry hit one of two free throws to cut Butler’s lead to 61-59, Maryland failed to get a shot off on its final two possessions. The game ended when Jones was unable to control Eric Hayes’ inbounds just before the buzzer sounded.
“You plan on getting that rebound, but we didn’t get it,” Williams said.
Butler, coming off a 57-46 win over Old Dominion in the first round on Thursday, also picked the right time to win consecutive games for the first time in more than a month. The Bulldogs entered the game 5-4 in their past nine.
The Bulldogs improved to 21-0 when they hold an opponent to 59 points or less. They did it with a stifling defense, forcing 17 Terrapins turnovers.
“That’s just the way we have to play,” Graves said. “We have a lot of other physical deficiencies. I mean, we’re just not that big. We’ve got to play as a team.”
Butler improved to 4-1 in NCAA tournament games under coach Todd Lickliter, and is in the midst of its fourth 20-win season in six years.
Maryland lost the opening game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament to Miami and also endured a difficult midseason stretch in which it went 3-5 against league rivals.
The Bulldogs, by comparison, add Maryland to a high-profile list of teams they’ve beaten this season — a group including Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue.
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