With the heart and soul of the Cleveland State men’s basketball team on the bench with an injured groin, the Vikings were unable to generate enough offense and dropped a 52-49 decision to Butler before a season-best 5,021 at the Wolstein Center that had an 11 a.m. tipoff.
Missing senior guard D’Aundray Brown, who re-injured his leg in a 59-41 loss on Thursday to Valparaiso, the Vikings still had their chances to sweep the season series against the Bulldogs.
But that faded when Butler sophomore guard Chrishawn Hopkins broke a 49-49 tie with a jumper off the glass with 1:39 left and freshman forward Kameron Woods hit one of two free throws with 11 remaining to deliver the Vikings back-to-back losses for the first time this season.
“We don’t go 0-for-8 (on 3-pointers) and win with D’Audray Brown in the game for them,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens, who has taken the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament championship game in each of the last two seasons.
“It’s just another win at this point,” added Stevens. “We better get better,” said the Butler coach, whose team suffered a 76-69 setback at home to the Vikings on Jan. 13.
Stevens and his team are prepared to have to play a first round Horizon League tournament when the post season begins.
The top two teams in the regular season standings are rewarded with a double bye with the regular season champ gaining home floor for the semi-finals and finals.
“We put ourselves in a bad spot when we lost twice in Wisconsin,” said the Butler coach.
For Cleveland State, it was an uphill battle that almost ended with a win.
The Vikings, who trailed 17-1 to start in the loss to Valparaiso, again fell behind early.
The Bulldogs opened a 22-12 lead behind freshman Roosevelt Jones, who scored eight of Butler’s first 12 points on the way to a team-best 17 point morning.
“This was a tough loss for our team to take,” said Cleveland State coach Gary Waters. “I thought we beat ourselves. The issue that we have been having came back to haunt us: we turned the ball over too much and we gave up too many offensive rebounds.”
Waters turned to the stat sheet to point out what went wrong.
“When we hold a team to 38% shooting we’ll win 95% of the time,” said Waters. “We’re just having trouble scoring.”
The scoring troubles could have been worse had not freshman Anton Grady come to the front, scoring 12 of the Vikings’ 18 first half points to keep Cleveland State in the game.
Grady, who finished with a game-high 18 points, had his fourth career double-double with a game-best 13 rebounds.
Butler, which broke a 6-6 tie with a drive to the basket by sophomore Erik Fromm with 15:17 left in the opening half, ended the first 20 minutes with a 28-18 lead.
“We have to use our home as leverage and that’s always been our strength,” added Waters, whose team surprisingly remains 1/2 game behind league leading Valparaiso, which failed to take advantage of the Vikings loss with a 71-52 setback at Youngstown State.
Valparaiso, which concluded a season sweep of the Vikings on Thursday, is 11-4 while Cleveland State fell to 10-4 with its loss to Butler.
The Vikings, who were limited to 1-for-13 in 3-pointers in the 59-41 loss to Valpo, were unable to hit from behind the arc in the first half against Butler. But in the second half of a game telecast on ESPN, Cleveland State senior Trey Harmon went 4-for-6 for all of his 12 points.
Harmon’s fourth 3-pointer gave the Vikings a 45-43 lead with 6:00 left only to see the Bulldogs answer when Jones drove for a basket and converted a free throw for a 46-45 advantage with 5:40 remaining.
The game had two more lead changes and three ties before Hopkins hit what turned out to be the game winner with 1:39 left.
“We have to get better offensively,” said Harmon, who was held scoreless in the first half. “We’re just out of sync right now. Our defense is there and we just need to make corrections to shore that up, but we need to get back to what we’re supposed to do on offense.”
Behind Grady and Harmon, the Vikings got seven points from junior Tim Kamczyc but suffered a combined eight turnovers from the point guard position manned by senior Jeremy Montgomery and freshman Charlie Lee.
The Vikings were 18-for-48 (37%) from the field but made 5-of-19 from behind the arc to cut into the Bulldogs early advantage.
Butler, tied for third place with Youngstown State at 9-6, got a team-high 17 points with seven rebounds from Jones, had 12 points and a team-best eight rebounds including four on the offensive glass from sohomore Khyle Marshall and 11 points from sophomore Andrew Smith.
The next test for the Vikings offense is on the road Tuesday against Milwaukee, which was on the short end of a 83-57 decision against Cleveland State at the Wolstein Center Jan. 22.
The Panthers, who play Sunday at Wright State, entered Saturday one of four teams tied for third at 8-6 with Youngstown State and Butler, which won on Saturday and Detroit, which hosts Green Bay on Sunday.
Looking to avoid a repeat of a 4-4 February in what was an otherwise outstanding 2010-11 season, Waters has challenged his team, which has lost two in a row after winning 20 of its first 25 games.
“I told our guys that our recent play has nothing to do with skill level, It’s all about heart. There is a word called ‘fate’ out there and its is trying to come after us. It’s biting at our heels.
“You have to fight this fate and fight as hard as you can. I told my guys that we worked too hard and we’re going to fight our fate. They know we’re in a bad place. We’re in a valley and the rain is coming down on us. I challenged our guys to swim to the top and fight our way out of this because we can.”
Cleveland State follows its Tuesday game at Milwaukee with a non-league game at the Wolstein Center when its hosts an 11 a.m. Saturday Bracket Buster contest against Drexel before returning to Wisconsin on Feb. 21 to play at Green Bay.