EVANSTON, Ill. – Butler’s next test is its most daunting yet in this men’s basketball season, so it was a positive for Bulldog coach Brad Stevens to see that his biggest weapon is peaking at the right time.
Butler center Andrew Smith nearly matched career marks in both scoring and rebounding on Saturday, as he led – in the second half at least – the Bulldogs to a 74-65 win at Northwestern in front of 7,213 fans at Welsh Ryan Arena.
“I thought that Andrew played his best game of the year,” Stevens said. “And we needed everything. We needed every bit of it.”
Stevens talked about how his team played much better the last 32 minutes than the initial eight and Smith was indicative of that momentum swing. At halftime, the 6-foot-11 senior center had as many fouls (three) as he did rebounds. But the second half was an entirely different story.
“It was a very physical game and they adjusted to that better than we did,” Wildcat coach Bill Carmody said. “Smith dominated. It’s a good lesson for our two freshmen centers.”
Northwestern went to a spread-out 1-3-1 zone defense, which opened space for Smith and his back-up, junior Erik Fromm, to have some room to crash the boards.
Smith totaled 10 rebounds, including eight offensive boards, while Fromm pulled down eight of his own.
“Andrew came up with huge rebounds,” Stevens said. “That is sometimes what you give up when you are really extending that zone. Andrew was pretty forceful in going after the ball.”
Smith wasn’t just forceful in the post; he made a spectacular maneuver midway through the second half, which squelched a Northwestern (7-3) run.
The Wildcats had trimmed their deficit to 44-39 with 11:42 remaining in the game, when Smith took a pass from Roosevelt Jones (10 points, five rebounds, three assists) to stretch the lead to 46-39.
A few possessions later, Smith was near the top of the key and lunged out into the passing lane to knock a Northwestern pass loose. As the ball bounced toward the Bulldog (7-2) basket, Smith outran Wildcat point guard Dave Sobolewski, picked up his dribble and streaked toward the basket, throwing down a vicious dunk.
The basket was part of nine consecutive points by Smith and stretched the Butler lead to 53-42 with just over eight minutes remaining.
“Andrew was rolling late,” Stevens said.
Smith finished with 24 points, one shy of his career best. In fact, he could’ve easily topped the mark. On the final possession of the game, Smith made another steal and had a breakaway lay-in if he chose to, but pulled up and didn’t try to score.
His 10 rebounds were also just three shy of his best effort yet.
“You can’t get your motivation from scoring points,” Stevens said. “You get your motivation from playing good basketball and that’s what most of these guys do.”
The Bulldogs will have the week off until Saturday’s contest against No. 1-ranked Indiana in the Crossroads Classic (2 p.m., CBS) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“I haven’t seen anybody better (than Indiana),” Stevens said. “They are outstanding. We’ll have our hands full preparing for that.”
Also contributing in the victory were Butler senior guard Rotnei Clarke (13 points, three assists), and Kellen Dunham (11 points, five rebounds).
Former Snider High School standout Reggie Hearn was solid for Northwestern. He finished the night with 13 points, six rebounds, and a pair of steals in 39 minutes of playing time.