INDIANAPOLIS – Evansville coach Marty Simmons prowled the sideline Saturday, tugging at his shirt, his pants and contemplating what more his team needed to do against No. 19 Butler.
The Purple Aces did everything but win.
Andrew Smith and Rotnei Clarke each scored 20 points and combined to make the final four free throws, helping the surging Bulldogs fend off a late rally by Evansville for a 75-67 victory.
"These guys battled harder today than I think they did at Notre Dame, Colorado State or even Murray State," Simmons said after another frustrating loss. "But we've got to improve. We're going to play teams like Butler in our own conference."
The long, treacherous road through the Missouri Valley Conference begins next Saturday with a trip to No. 17 Creighton.
Evansville came to Butler playing good basketball — winning two straight, three of four, coming off the first 100-point game in Simmons' six seasons at the school and hoping to pull off a third straight victory in this series.
The Purple Aces did have some offensive punch. Colt Ryan, who has been scoring almost 16 points per game since returning from a hip pointer, finished with 25. Ned Cox had 12 points and Ryan Sawvell scored 10 and grabbed six rebounds.
It was just enough to keep the Aces (7-5) close for most of the game — but not enough to take down a squad that had just beaten the nation's No. 1 team a week ago.
"We've got to do a lot of little things better because against good basketball teams, they're going to punch you in the mouth," Simmons said.
The victory gave Butler its sixth straight win and a five-game sweep over Indiana schools — a remarkable turnaround from a season ago when the Bulldogs (9-2) went 2-5 against in-state schools. The Bulldogs open Atlantic 10 play Jan. 9 at St. Joseph's and won't face another in-state school unless it comes in a postseason tournament.
"It's better than last year," coach Brad Stevens said, drawing laughter when asked about the Indiana sweep. "It's important to me and it's important to these guys to play well against the teams in our state because we can play well against a team like Evansville and lose."
It almost happened again, though this clearly wasn't the Bulldogs' best game.
In Butler's first game since the stunning upset over the top-ranked Hoosiers, it committed an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers, went 4 of 16 on 3-pointers and got outrebounded on the offensive end. That's not The Butler Way.
But the Bulldogs were their usually resilient selves, overcoming a sluggish start and each of Evansville's comeback attempts with the same kind of gritty team effort that captivated a nation with NCAA tournament runs to the national championship game in 2010 and 2011.
Smith had six rebounds and four assists in addition to his 20 points, all but four of those coming in the second half. Clarke added three rebounds and overcame five turnovers. Those two combined to make the final four free throws, ending Evansville's comeback attempt.
Freshman 3-point shooter Kellen Dunham showed he could put the ball on the floor, too, finishing with 13 points and five rebounds. Backup forward Kameron Woods, who had seen his playing time dwindle recently, had 10 points and 12 rebounds in what was easily his best game of the season. Roosevelt Jones fought through foul trouble to score 12 points.
Evansville couldn't overcome that combination.
For the last two years, it was Evansville throwing the punches.
Last season they beat the Bulldogs in overtime in the first game at Ford Arena — thanks in part to a questionable call at the end of regulation. Two years ago, at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Evansville got a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left and held on for a 71-68 win.
"We did some good things today and that was one of them, resiliency," Simmons said.
The Bulldogs had trouble pulling away, too.
Evansville cut an eight-point deficit to four by scoring the final four points of the first half, and after Butler built a 48-36 lead early in the second half, the Aces forced three turnovers and two missed shots on the Bulldogs' next five possessions. Suddenly, it was just 48-43.
A few minutes later, Butler appeared to put it away when Jones scored on a layup, Dunham drove in for a layup and followed that with a 19-footer, and Clarke ended the run with a 3-pointer to make it 64-50 with 4:26.
Evansville rallied one more time, getting a 3 from Ryan with 25 seconds left to make it 71-67, but Smith and Clarke made their free throws to finish off a 23-of-27 day from the line for Butler as it completed the Indiana sweep.
"For the most part, I think we've played pretty well this season. We've had some letdowns in those games (nine wins), but we're pretty happy with where we are this time of the year," Smith said. "Evansville is a very good team and can come out and beat anybody."