PHILADELPHIA (AP) — With a packed house roaring from the opening tip, Saint Joseph’s was ready to play spoiler.
For 20 minutes, the Hawks perfected the part.
Then they realized what teams in the Horizon League knew for years — Butler usually finds a way to win.
Rotnei Clarke scored 28 points and Andrew Smith had 24 points and 10 rebounds to lead the No. 14 Bulldogs to a 72-66 win over Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday night.
The Bulldogs (13-2, 1-0 Atlantic 10) are no longer bullying their way over teams in the Horizon League. Butler made its A-10 debut one to remember, holding Saint Joseph’s without a field goal for a 9-minute stretch in the second half to rally for the win.
Butler, losers of consecutive NCAA championship games in 2010 and 2011, proved it’s going to be a threat to win another conference title, no matter the name of the league.
“I didn’t think coming here was going to be any big deal for them,” coach Phil Martelli said.
The Hawks almost crashed the welcoming party. But Langston Galloway airballed a 3-pointer, then missed a second attempt on the same possession in the final minute to end Saint Joseph’s chances. Halil Kanacevic also missed a pair of 3-point attempts with the Hawks down four.
“I would love to have them back,” Galloway said. “I was wide open, but came up short.”
Chris Wilson scored 15 points, and Ronald Roberts Jr. had 12 points and nine rebounds for the Hawks (8-5, 0-1).
Clarke responded to a loud and upset-minded crowd on Hawk Hill with six 3-pointers to help the Bulldogs win their 10th straight game. Clarke’s 3 were about automatic. So were the boos that erupted each time he touched the ball.
Butler was hardly basketball’s darling in Philadelphia — just the way Clarke liked it.
“That’s what you work for, being able to go on the road and play in tough venues with hostile crowds and being able to hit shots that quiet crowds,” he said. “I think that’s one of the fun things about playing on the road.
Clarke, who once scored 51 points in a game while with Arkansas, punished Saint Joseph’s from beyond the arc for 39 minutes. He made his six 3s on 10 attempts. When the Bulldogs were off the mark, no worries. Smith was there to grab the big boards and score the inside buckets (8 of 15 from the floor).
Clarke’s 3 for a 57-56 lead gave the Bulldogs never relinquished. Each time the Hawks inched closer, Clarke just pushed them back — from deep. Galloway’s 3 made it a two-point game. But Clarke, one of the top 3-point shooters in the conference, came right back down and hit one.
He silenced a Hawk Hill crowed that came believing it would see an upset and end the game bellowing their famed chant, “The Hawk Will Never Die!” in victory. Instead, the Bulldogs made the mad dash off the court in celebration.
“I definitely think coaching is what sets them on another level,” Wilson said. “Their guys are extremely disciplined. They run their stuff extremely hard and they play together, the whole game. That was the main thing I noticed, just how together and how well-coached they were.”
The Hawks knocked off then-No. 20 Notre Dame in overtime in November and lost to then-No. 11 Creighton in December.
There was a buzz building on Hawk Hill over an experienced and talented team that was the preseason favorite to win a revamped Atlantic 10 and had their sights set on returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
Butler had all the fun.
“New kids on the block,” coach Brad Stevens said. “It probably doesn’t help that we’re ranked, whatever that means. But it does add to the environment you play in.”
Saint Joseph’s was hardly a unanimous pick to win the conference. Butler was picked sixth, but was one of six teams to earn a first-place vote. The Bulldogs beat then-No. 1 Indiana 88-86 in overtime to show they just might finish higher than sixth.
The Bulldogs and Hawks played each other only once before, on Jan. 31, 1941. Saint Joseph’s won 47-43. Wednesday’s game was tied 46-all 3 1/2 minutes into the second half.
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