It was an exciting run for the UW-Milwaukee Panthers, who rallied late in the season to win the Horizon League championship and earn the top seed in the league tournament but the ride came to an end Tuesday night.
Butler, one of three teams to share the regular-season title, dominated Milwaukee in all facets of the game and cruised to a 59-44 victory, earning the Horizon League's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament in front of 10,437 fans at the U.S. Cellular Arena.
The Bulldogs effectively silenced the Panthers' top scoring tandem of Anthony Hill and Tone Boyle. The two each finished with 10 points but Butler's defense, especially senior forward Matt Howard made things difficult inside and out.
Hill struggled to get shots as the Bulldogs brought plenty of help. He finished with just two buckets in five attempts, though he did go 6-for-7 from the line. He wasn't alone in his struggles; as a team, the Panthers shot 30 percent for the game and were 4-of-18 from beyond the three-point line.
"We didn't shoot the ball well," Jeter said. "You're not going to win many games shooting the percentages that we shot. It's unfortunate it happened in this game."
Howard, meanwhile, was just as good on the offensive end, scoring 12 of his game-high 18 points in 13 first half minutes on 4-of-5 shooting. He hit a pair of three-pointers early in the game to set the tone for Butler and was named the tournament's most valuable player after averaging
"He really set the tone and established the game for them early," Jeter said.
The Panthers (19-13) were doomed from the start. Ja'Rob McCallum's jumper at 16:15 made it a 6-3 game but Milwaukee wouldn't make another field goal for 7 minutes 33 seconds and trailed Butler, 23-8, when Ryan Allen snapped the scoring drought with 9:12 left in the half.
During that span the Panthers turned the ball over seven times and missed four shots. They got hot after that, drawing within eight at 28-20 on Mitchell Carter's two free throws with 2:56 left in the half, but Milwaukee missed on its last three shots of the half and went into the locker room shooting just 21 percent and trailing. 33-20.
"Clearly at the start of the game we seemed to be a little rushed and a little new to the moment and we didn't really get settled down in the first half," Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter said.
The Panthers fought their way back into the game in the second half, drawing within three on Ryan Allen's layup with 9:45 to play. But again, the shots stopped falling for Milwaukee, which was held to just one point over the next 7:42 as Butler pulled away for its second consecutive Horizon League Tournament championship and third in the last four years.
The Bulldogs (23-9) head back to the NCAA Tournament where last year, they made a Cinderella run to the National Championship Game. Milwaukee (19-13) will more than likely not receive an at-large bid to the tournament but is guaranteed a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.
"You want to make it to the NCAA Tournament," Boyle said. "That's what we dream of and what we work for. But we have to keep our heads up. We're going to the NIT, which is another great tournament and somewhere we could keep going and make some good memories from that."
Jeter said there is still plenty to play for.
"We accepted the challenge and proved that we belonged here tonight," Jeter said. "We've had to prove that we're for real and we still have time to do that."
NIT pairings, dates and times will be announced Sunday night, following the NCAA Tournament selection show. The Panthers last and only NIT appearance came in 2004.