LEXINGTON, Ky. — Back and forth went Marquette and Butler, trading makes and misses in an intense rematch that made a case for being the best game so far of this NCAA tournament.
In the end, Vander Blue and the Golden Eagles pulled out another nail-biter as the Bulldogs couldn’t muster any more of their March magic.
Blue scored 19 second-half points to rally third-seeded Marquette out of another hole, and the Golden Eagles survived 74-72 on Saturday to reach the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
“I know everybody in our team, we weren’t ready to go home,” said Blue, who made a last-second layup to win Marquette’s first game of this tournament. “We had two close games — we had a lot of those this year. What we went through earlier this year prepared us for this weekend.”
Like November’s first meeting between the teams at the Maui Invitational, won 72-71 by Butler on Rotnei Clarke’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer, it came down to the final shot. Only this time, Butler missed.
“The difference in the game was the level of pressure they put on us in the second half and certainly the shots they made,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “They had a few I didn’t think were going in that bounced in.
“Our guys gave great effort on both ends of the floor. Our guys played their hearts out. I told them they had nothing to be ashamed about.”
Marquette (25-8) will meet the winner of Sunday’s game between Illinois and Miami on Thursday in the East Regional semifinals at Washington, D.C.
“We could have easily been beat by Davidson,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “We could easily have been beaten tonight. Our character, toughness and the resiliency of our guys is maybe unlike any team I’ve ever been around. I stand at attention and respect for how those kids are…
“It’s just another Marquette game. We’re not good enough to blow anybody out. We’re just good enough to get blown out. And if we can turn it into a fight and make it ugly, then it probably trends toward it helps us the most.”
It will be Marquette’s third consecutive round of 16 appearance, but the Golden Eagles are seeking to move past that round for the first time since 2003, when Dwyane Wade led them to the Final Four.
“There were multiple times we could have gave up,” said Blue, who finished with 29 points. “But there’s something about this group. We’re relentless and we want to win. We’re not ready to go home yet.”
Clarke’s 24 points led Butler (28-9).
Blue led the Golden Eagles’ rally from a 35-27 halftime deficit and tied the game at 69 on 3-pointer with 1:25 remaining.
That set the stage for more late-game drama by his teammates.
After Jamil Wilson’s two free throws made it 71-69, Davante Gardner deflected Clarke’s pass intended for Kellen Dunham underneath and then made the first of three late free throws for 74-70 lead with 4.7 seconds left.
After Wilson’s goaltend on what would have been a layup by Andrew Smith cut the lead to two 2 seconds later, Blue almost became the goat by throwing away the inbounds pass intended for Wilson with 2.9 seconds left.
The Bulldogs, who seem to win every close game at this time of year, couldn’t get a good last look. Smith took an off-balance 3 from up top that was way off, slamming into the backboard and setting off another Marquette celebration.
“We were trying to get a look for a 3,” Butler guard Alex Barlow said the final shot. “If that wasn’t open, we had options off of that. Marquette did a great job guarding it and unfortunately Andrew was unable to make the shot.”
This could be the start of quite a rivalry. Next year, Butler joins the new Big East with Marquette.
Stevens’ Bulldogs reached the championship game in 2010 and ‘11, but won’t make the second weekend this year.
“You can control some things, you can’t control others,” Stevens said. “We’re going to go back and wish we controlled a few things little bit better. … We talk about all the close wins … but the only commercial I ever see is a close loss, Butler vs. Duke (in the 2010 championship).
“We’ve been here before, we’ve lived it. And we’ll move on.”
Blue shot 9 of 15 from the field with three from long range, finishing just four points off his career high. Trent Lockett and Wilson each added 13 points for Marquette, which shot 23 of 54 (43 percent) and was 5 of 12 from beyond the arc.
The Bulldogs’ defense also held Clarke to just six second-half points after he seemed ready to dominate the game by himself. Smith finished with 17 points.
SYRACUSE 66, CALIFORNIA 60
SAN JOSE, Calif. — C.J. Fair scored 18 points, James Southerland added 14 and fourth-seeded Syracuse survived a second-half drought of more than 12 minutes without a field goal to beat No. 12 seed California.
The Orange (28-9) frustrated California with their zone defense to overcome a dismal shooting night when they made just 39 percent of their shots and missed 15 of 41 free throws.
But it proved to be enough to send Syracuse to Washington, D.C., for the East Regional where the Orange will take on the winner of Sunday’s game between top-seeded Indiana and Temple on Thursday.
Richard Solomon scored 22 points for the Golden Bears (21-12), who were trying to make it to the round of 16 for the first time in 16 years and just the third time since 1960.
MICHIGAN STATE 70, MEMPHIS 48
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Gary Harris scored 16 of his career-high 23 points in the first half to help third-seeded Michigan State reach the round of 16 for the fifth time in six years.
Michigan State (27-8) will play the winner of the Duke-Creighton game on Friday in the Midwest Regional semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The Tigers (31-5) advanced in the NCAA tournament for the first time in Josh Pastner’s four seasons. The Conference USA champions were eliminated in the third round because they struggled to stop Harris on the outside or his teammates inside all afternoon.
The Spartans’ top post players — Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix — combined for 27 points and 18 rebounds.
MICHIGAN 78, VCU 53
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Mitch McGary had 21 points and 14 rebounds, and fourth-seeded Michigan breezed through Virginia Commonwealth’s vaunted pressure with a clinical performance and advanced to the round of 16 for the first time since 1994.
VCU (27-9) was relentless in a 46-point rout of Akron on Thursday night, but the Rams met their match against Michigan’s cool-headed backcourt. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. rarely looked rattled against VCU, and although Michigan (28-7) committed 12 turnovers, the Rams couldn’t turn many of them into quick scoring opportunities.
McGary, a 6-foot-10 freshman, set season highs in scoring and rebounding.
The 71-point swing by VCU — from a 46-point win to a 25-point loss — was the largest in NCAA tournament history, according to STATS. In 1968, Houston beat Texas Christian 103-68, then lost to UCLA 101-69 for a 67-point swing.
The Wolverines will play the winner of Sunday’s game between Kansas and North Carolina in Arlington, Texas.