By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — MUNCIE — The Butler Way never wavers.
Trailing by 11 early in the second half Saturday at Worthen Arena, the Bulldogs (4-0) used their defense to get back into the game and rally for a 59-58 victory against in-state rival Ball State (2-2).
"That's been Butler's M.O. since the giddy-up," said Anderson High School graduate Terry Johnson, the longest-tenured assistant on first-year head coach Brandon Miller's staff. "Even though people know we shoot the 3-pointer, but first things first, you've got to guard. We get some stops, and then we move on."
Butler got plenty of stops in the game's final 14 minutes, holding the Cardinals to 40 percent shooting in the second half and forcing nine of their 17 turnovers after intermission.
Ball State took a 42-31 lead on a layup by Majok Majok with 13:49 remaining, but the Bulldogs scored the next 11 points and 20 of the next 24 overall to regain control.
The run started when freshman guard Elijah Brown hit two free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt. Brown came off the bench to score 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting in just his fourth game at college basketball's top level.
"That's something he's been doing since the exhibition games, bringing us a spark coming off the bench," said senior Khyle Marshall, who led Butler with 14 points and added nine rebounds. "We knew he was coming in. He got in a rhythm, started getting a hot hand, and we went to him. He started knocking down shots. Just like myself, his energy brings everybody else's energy up."
Brown's next basket came on a dunk after a steal and assist from Andrew Chrabascz, and the Bulldogs cut their deficit to five on a steal and basket by Alex Barlow.
After a Ball State timeout, Marshall started a fast break with a steal and finished with a dunk off an assist from Brown. A few possessions later, Barlow tied the game for the seventh and final time with a 3-pointer off another Brown assist.
"Everybody wants to think offense gets you back in it," Johnson said. "You've got to get stops first. Then your offense can be able to come a little bit easier. We got some stops and got us back in the game, and then we held on at the end."
The Cardinals briefly regained the lead on a layup by Majok, who finished with a game-high 15 points and 11 rebounds, but a 3-pointer by Brown off an assist from former Pendleton Heights star Kellen Dunham put Butler ahead for good with nine minutes to play.
Dunham struggled for much of the night, shooting just 2-for-13 from the floor, but he did have a 3-pointer and a rare slam dunk as the Bulldogs sprinted to a 10-3 lead.
"I've had two (career dunks)," Dunham said. "I had a little tip-in last year, and then I got to hang on the rim a little bit down there today. I just wish a few more shots would've went in."
Dunham also went 3-for-5 from the free-throw line to finish with eight points.
Butler pushed its lead to 51-46 on a steal and dunk by Kameron Woods with 5:59 to play and still held a four-point advantage after a jumper by Brown with 2:05 remaining.
Mark Alstork cut the deficit to one with his only basket, a 3-pointer at the 1:20 mark, but neither team scored again. Freshman Zavier Turner had a chance to win the game for Ball State in the final seconds, but his layup missed and Woods — who had 12 points and 10 boards — pulled down the rebound to run the final ticks off the clock.
"We talked about poise and toughness in the locker room before the game started, and I thought our guys had great poise and toughness in the second half," Miller said. "As Ball State took the lead by 11, we just kind of stayed true to what we do. We fought and we battled."
Butler's last three wins have come by a total of 12 points — including an overtime thriller against Vanderbilt on Tuesday — and the team will next face Washington State at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., on Thanksgiving.
The tight road win against Ball State could serve as a springboard for the Sunshine State swing.
"I thought we played really well (defensively), especially down the stretch," Dunham said. "Our last three games have kind of been similar to this, and they've all come our way. So that's a good sign. Heading into Orlando, I think we're going to be pretty confident."