VANDALIA — Coming into the 100th season of Butler basketball, the Aviators knew the season had the potential to be special. Coming off a shared league title a year ago, Butler set its sights on a bigger prize.
On Friday, the Aviators fought off a stubborn effort by Tippecanoe to claim a 67-60 win that secured sole possession of the final Greater Western Ohio Conference North championship. The win lifted Butler to 20-2 overall as they close the regular season and 13-2 in league play, a game ahead of second place Sidney. Tipp fell to 7-15 overall and 4-11 in conference play.
“We had a lot of things going against us,” said Butler head coach DJ Wyrick. “A big win on Tuesday, it was senior night, the huge crowd which plays in our favor but is another layer of stress for these guys. I felt we handled it well and they showed they were a mature and veteran group that every time it got close we made a play. When we needed to make a play, we made them, and that shows the maturity of this team.”
Prior to the game, Butler honored a 10-player senior class.
“This was my first group, we came in together,” said Wyrick. “They are a unique group of kids. They like each other, they enjoy coming to practice, our practices are wars and then at the snap of a finger they are best friends again. They compete but are very unselfish. I could go my entire career and never see a group like this that genuinely likes each other and likes being around each other and likes playing together. They are so unselfish that when its anybody’s night, all nine of them are up and cheering for that guy. Its a different guy the next night, and all nine are thrilled for that guy. They naturally celebrate the success of others and I think that’s what separates them from most teams.”
The championship run caps off a four-year roller coaster that saw the program at its deepest point with just 2 wins in 2015 to a league title. The support of the Vandalia-Butler community, even in the darkest times, wasn’t lost on one Butler senior.
“This community, this fan base, its crazy,” said Braedon Norman. “They supported us when we were down and supported us when we are up. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
This win wasn’t easy. Coming off an emotional win at Sidney on Tuesday and the emotions that go with Senior Night, the Aviators struggled to gain separation from the visiting Red Devils. The Aviators hit four three pointers in the first quarter and led 16-7 at the end of the period, but it was an uneasy lead.
Tipp heated up from outside to open the second quarter as they opened on a 12-2 run after four straight three pointers with 4:52 to play in the half. The Red Devils hit 9 three-pointers in the game, matching Butler’s attack.
“Our game plan was to face guard (Nolan) Mader and then help on everyone else,” said Wyrick. “Sometimes that works, but if their #2 guy gets hot, you have to do something else. For whatever reason they kept getting open on us. They made some tough shots but ultimately we pulled it out.”
After Tipp took its largest lead of the game at 21-18, Butler’s Michael Kreill, who scored 17 points after missing a pair of games with a concussion, scored four straight points. A technical foul led to a pair of made free throws to give the Aviators the lead back which they maintained the rest of the half.
After taking a 31-26 lead into halftime, Tipp came out bombing away from three and cut the lead to 37-34. A pair of threes by Butler’s Kreill helped keep the Devils at bay and let the Aviators build a lead as big as 46-38 in the third period.
Trailing 46-41 heading to the final period, Tipp went on a 9-3 run to take a 50-49 lead with 4:30 to play. Another three pointer by Butler’s Braedon Norman, who lead all scorers with 25 points, let the Aviators retake the lead with 4:05 to play.
Butler would never trail again.
Tipp cut the lead to 54-53 with 3:00 to play but another Norman three-pointer with 1:58 to play put Butler up by five and Tipp never got within one possession again.
Norman hit 6-of-6 free throws in the final 38 seconds to seal the win.
The #3 seed Aviators will now set their sights on a first round sectional matchup with Belmont, the #13 seed.
“We are going to keep doing what we’ve been doing and compete in practice and make each other better,” said Norman.
“This is very rewarding because of the hard work and time we’ve put into this over the past four years,” said Wyrick. “To be able to get something out of it is tremendous. Last year we beat Tipp for the league title and we were kind of satisfied. Tonight, this is just one step on our journey. I want them to enjoy it, but we have a lot more to accomplish. For some this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but now we have to gear up for the tournament. We have other goals to accomplish. We aren’t done yet.”
Reach Darrell Wacker at (937) 684-8983 or on Twitter @VandaliaDrummer.