GAME NOTES: The Butler Bulldogs and the Illinois Fighting Illini will close out the Maui Invitational on Wednesday night when they duke it out at Lahaina Civic Center for the right to be crowned tournament champion.
Butler split its two games prior to heading to Maui, where it has put together an improbable run to say the least. First, the Bulldogs defeated Marquette in the opening round, 72-71, on a last-second game-winning three-pointer by Rotnei Clarke. They somehow managed to top that performance in the semifinals against No. 9 North Carolina by winning 82-71 in a game they led wire-to-wire.
The Illini's fantastic early-season run started with a pair of home wins over Colgate (75-55) and Saint Francis (89-64) before traveling to Hawaii for a road game with the Rainbow Warriors, a contest they won in overtime, 78-77. Illinois barely broke a sweat in the tournament so far, beating USC (94-64) and Chaminade (84-61) en route to the championship game
Illinois leads the all-time series with Butler, 29-8, and the teams have never before met on a neutral floor.
The Bulldogs have put up merely average shooting percentages by their standards both from the field overall (.446) and from three-point range (.333), but against UNC they came out firing. They made 25-of-53 from the floor, including 12-of-25 from downtown, as they led by as many as 29 in the second half. Clarke and Kellen Dunham each scored 17 points, and the two combined to hit 9-of-15 three-pointers on the night. Andrew Smith netted 13 points, and Khyle Marshall tallied 10 points and 11 rebounds. Butler was also stellar from the free throw line, hitting 20-of-25 from the stripe to help hold off a late run by the Tar Heels. On the season, Clarke is Butler's leading scorer with 16.2 ppg, albeit on just 39 percent field goal accuracy. Marshall (13.8 ppg) is the team's leading rebounding with 7.0 rpg, and Dunham (12.5 ppg) has drained 92.9 percent of his free throws.
Illinois has been fantastic this season, shooting 46.3 percent from the floor while outscoring its opponents by nearly 20 ppg, winning the battle on the boards by 6.2 rpg, and forcing four more turnovers per game than it commits. The effort was no different against Chaminade in the semifinals as it shot 49.2 percent from the floor, including 39.3 percent from three-point range (11-of-28) on its way to a 23-point win. Joseph Bertrand came off the bench to score a team-high 14 points in just 17 minutes. Brandon Paul scored 13 points, D.J. Richardson put up 11 points, and Tyler Griffey chipped in 10 points. Paul has been one of the best shooters in the nation on the young season, as he's averaging 19.6 ppg while draining more than 47 percent of his three-point attempts. Tracy Abrams logs 13.8 ppg and a team-high 4.4 apg, and Richardson rounds out the unit's double-digit scorers with 11.4 ppg.
Something's got to give in this matchup between red-hot teams. Both have the ability to put up points in the blink of an eye, but while Butler has shown vulnerability in spots, Illinois has been dominant from the start this season, giving it the advantage to take home the championship trophy.