LSU hit Butler with a flurry of punches in the early going by hitting its first four shots and racing out to a 9-0 lead. However, a seven minute stretch where the Tigers didn’t score allowed Butler to stay within striking distance and trail by only six at the half, 35-29.
Butler hung close and had a one point lead three times in the second half with the last lead at the 8:01 mark before a 10-4 run pushed LSU's lead to 63-58 and put the Bulldogs in a hole it could not climb out of.
"Obviously we played well in spurts," LSU head coach Trent Johnson said. "We have a lot of respect for Butler’s basketball team. We knew they were a possession by possession team.
“I thought it was a tough game. We got off to a great start and then we hit a wall where shots didn't go down for us. We found a way to win a game and found a way to make some plays down the stretch."
Marcus Thornton led the Tigers with 30 points and played lights out in every way imaginable. The senior from Baton Rouge hit 10 of 15 shots from the floor including 3 of 4 from 3-point range. He also pulled down six rebounds, dished out four assists and collected four steals in leading LSU to the second round.
“We didn't have an answer for Thornton,” said Butler head coach Brad Stevens. “That hasn't happened very often since I've been here, a guy that really just, he answered every challenge. He made every big shot. We were there, our guys played as hard as they could on him. I just thought he was terrific.”
Butler got as close as three points at 63-60 and had a chance to make it a one point game, but Gordon Hayward missed a layup and Tasmin Mitchell knocked down a jumper on the other end of the floor to make it a five point margin again.
The Bulldogs never quit and cut it down to three again at 72-69 off Shelvin Mack’s three with 14 seconds left, but Thornton, who hit 7 of 8 from the line, drained a pair of free throws with 11 ticks left on the clock.
“Like I said, defense,” said Mitchell. “We made some key stops at the end. You know, Chris Johnson. He made a huge block down at the end of the game. And that's what really topped the cake for us, won the game today.”
Fighting off LSU's early barrage, the Bulldogs got on the board and went on a 13-6 run and pulled to within 15-13 on a follow by Avery Jukes. LSU quickly pushed the lead back to seven, but Butler cut it to four once again at 22-18 on a 3-pointer by Mack.
That’s when Thornton, who had only two points in the first 15 minutes, caught fire and scored 11 straight points during one stretch and a 9-0 run gave the Tigers their biggest lead of the game at 31-18.
After shooting less than 40 percent in their last four games, LSU was on the mark and hit 27 of 55 from the floor including 6 of 14 on threes. That was the difference in this one and the improved shooting mark couldn’t have come at a better time for the Tigers.
Just as important though was the defense as LSU forced 15 turnovers, blocked eight shots and recorded 11 steals.
“Coach always emphasized defense,” said Mitchell. “He said defense wins championships, offense wins games. And you know this is a championship season. And this whole tournament, you know, the defense is going to come out key in every game.”
Along with Thornton’s game-high 30 points, LSU had two other players in double figures as Mitchell scored 14 and Chris Johnson added a dozen points.
Mitchell benefited from the extra attention that Butler paid to Thornton as he was constantly left open on the outside and he made the Bulldogs pay by knocking down 7 of 14 from the field.
“We have a play call, you know, we've been running the whole year and nobody can stop it,” Thornton said. “So I just took whatever they gave me. If they were on me, Tas was over me, and my teammates were over me. I just tried to get them in spots where I knew they could score, and the ball went down for us today.”
Butler was led by Horizon League Player of the Year Matt Howard who scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds before fouling out with 35 second left. The 6-foot-8, 230 pound sophomore forward was a force for the Bulldogs and kept them in the game with his gritty inside play and hustle in the paint.
While Howard proved to be tough to stop, LSU center Chris Johnson came through in the clutch with some big defensive stops at the end despite being in foul trouble.
“We told Chris to come out aggressive,” said Mitchell. “Don't worry about the fouls. We need him. That's what coach always says. Don't worry about the fouls, just be careful, but always play with your intensity. And that's what he did. He came back out with three fouls, played like he didn't have none. So that was a big thing for us.”
LSU will now meet No. 1 seed North Carolina on Saturday for a ticket to the Sweet 16.