Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Wis.-Milwaukee takes out Butler



By Arnie Stapleton
The Associated Press

MILWAUKEE - After waiting 107 years, the Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers wasted no time in qualifying for their first NCAA tournament. The Panthers raced to a 21-4 lead and cruised past Butler 69-52 Tuesday night in the Horizon League tournament championship.

Tournament MVP Clay Tucker said the Panthers were still smarting over losing the regular-season crown to Butler on a last second shot March 1.

"I'll tell you what really sparked this team was the fact that they took one from us. They put a dagger in our hearts," Tucker said. "We wanted to jump on them, throw the first punch and never let them back up.

"And that's just what we did."

The Bulldogs fell behind 14-0 and never got closer than 12 points thereafter.

"I think at first the pace was so frenetic that it took it out of them for the rest of the game," Panthers coach Bruce Pearl said.

This was top-seeded Butler's sixth league title game in seven years and second-seeded Milwaukee's first in school history. But neither team played like it.

Tucker scored 18 of his 23 points in the first half, leading the Panthers to a 38-20 halftime advantage in front of a raucous crowd of 10,115 - the largest in UWM history - that harkened to the Al McGuire days when Marquette's glory teams played in this venerable, cozy building now called U.S. Cellular Arena.

With its automatic bid, Milwaukee (24-7) will be the third school from the state headed to the NCAA tournament, joining eighth-ranked Marquette and No. 18 Wisconsin, both of which won their respective regular-season conference championships.

"This is a proud moment for this university," said Pearl, who took over the program when Bo Ryan went to Wisconsin two years ago. "UWM deserves this. Our students deserve this. Our alumni deserve this."

The Bulldogs (25-5), who won the Horizon League's regular-season crown 76-74 over Milwaukee on freshman Avery Sheets' 3-point buzzer-beater earlier this month, will have to wait until Sunday to see if they get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament

They expected one last year, but had to settle for the NIT instead.

"I really hope this isn't it," said Butler senior Joel Cornette, who broke down crying in the interview room. "I hope people take note of what we've done and put us in the dance."

Butler's five losses have come on the road to teams that are a combined 61-3 at home, if you count Milwaukee's victory Tuesday night, which came 10 minutes from the urban commuter school's campus.

The Bulldogs are considered the top mid-major school in the nation, with an RPI rating of 35.

"I don't know what else we could do," Bulldogs coach Todd Lickliter said. "We were 'rewarded' for the conference championship (by spending) six days in a hotel and then playing basically in front of a home crowd against a great team."

Ronnie Jones added 16 points for the Panthers, who began their program in 1895-96 and equaled their school record for victories set in 1988-89 - before the school joined Division I. Nate Mielke had nine points and seven rebounds.

Darnell Archey led Butler with 14 points, and Cornette scored 12.

Everything pointed to a tight game between the schools before tip-off

The previous five games had been decided by five points or fewer, including one in overtime and three at the buzzer. Each team won on its home court this season.

Cornette slipped on a floor sticker while driving the lane in the opening seconds and Tucker swished a jumper at the other end. Then, Archey slipped on a sticker near the bench and Dylan Page scored on a hook.

By the time the Bulldogs recovered, they were down 14-0.

"It seems at times we were lacking the toughness that we showed in the last 25 wins," Archey said. "It hurts to say that."

The Panthers, who trail the series 20-4, led by as many as 22 in the first half at 38-16 on Tucker's fast-break basket. The Bulldogs got to 40-28 with an 8-0 run early in the second half.

But Justin Lettenberger hit a 3-pointer for Milwaukee, which found its shooting touch again and built a 61-43 lead with 3:12 remaining.




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