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Butler usual heroics come early this time

So much has been made of Da'Sean Butler's late-game heroics that there's a tendency to overlook the impact he has throughout a game. So celebrated is his clutch scoring that it's easy to forget all he does to position West Virginia for its chance at victory.

The Mountaineers didn't need Butler to don his superhero garb at the conclusion of Sunday afternoon's second-round NCAA Tournament subregional game at HSBC Arena. They had room to spare in their conquest of Missouri because Butler imposed his will early in a 68-59 victory that sends them to the Sweet 16 to face 11th-seeded Washington on Thursday in the Carrier Dome.

For all the talk about Missouri's press and West Virginia's anticipated dominance on the backboards, this game was distilled to one simple, non-statistical fact: the Mountaineers had the best player on the floor and the Tigers' frenetic style caused him no discomfort. Butler's reputation may have expanded with game-winning shots over Cincinnati and Georgetown in the Big East Tournament -- his fifth and sixth of the season -- but typically his value is defined by accumulation rather than the sudden strike.

Butler, a 6-foot-7 senior forward, nailed two early threes as West Virginia bolted to an 8-0 lead. He scored the last five points of the first half from the free-throw line, giving him 19 at intermission and accounting for the Mountaineers' 30-25 cushion. He made 12-of-13 free throws all told in finishing with a game-high 28 points to go with eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks.

"He's been our leader throughout the whole season," sophomore Kevin Jones said. "We look to him for a lot of things, and he's just been able to come through throughout the whole season. I know he'll keep on coming through for us."

Guard play was cited as one of West Virginia's potential weaknesses heading into the tournament. Neither starter Darryl Bryant nor oft-used Joe Mazzulla fills the point role with a graceful ease, and Missouri aimed to disrupt with its "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball" defense that led the nation in steals and forced turnovers. Butler, as much as anyone, confounded those intentions.

"I think the key thing is you have to be able to inbound it to somebody who is going to be able to handled a double-team," said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. "Da'Sean did a great job of that all day. We talk about his [28] points. He's a guy who really handled the double-teams for us."

"He's a good player, you know," said Missouri guard J.T. Tiller. "He stepped up to the plate. He knew we were going to try to really see what he was going to do. He put his stamp on the game, so you can't take anything away from him."

Missouri's defense has the nickname but it was West Virginia's stout wall that showed the grit. None of the Tigers' starters shot better than 38 percent from the field as Missouri went 20 of 61 as a team. It took a hot hand by reserve freshman guard Michael Dixon to keep Missouri in proximity until the final minutes. Dixon was 6 of 10 from the field, totaled 15 points and led the Tigers in scoring for the first time all season.

"It's going to be tough to win when you have guys who [shoot] 2 for 9, 3 for 8, another 2 for 9," said forward Keith Ramsey. "It's tough. It's frustrating. So, I mean, if those shots would have fell we would probably be talking about us winning."

"You have to put the ball in the hole," added Missouri coach Mike Anderson. "We had opportunities to do that, and when that didn't take place it enabled West Virginia to get to the free-throw line. And they made their free throws."

Butler and Jones (13 points) were the stoppers when the Tigers mounted a pair of second-half rallies. A Dixon three had pulled Missouri within 44-41 before Jones nailed a three and Butler converted a trio of free throws after being fouled by Dixon beyond the arc. When the Tigers again crept within three at 56-53, it was Butler who converted two free throws with 4:22 left for a lead that would remain at least four the rest of the way.

"I don't think of us as anything else other than underdogs," Butler said. "Always I need that mentality before I go into a game. I can't go into the game thinking we're the best team in the country or whatever the case may be. Always think that we're the team people always overlook."

Kind of like the sum of his game.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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