Butler lifts Matadors to Region I finals; rematch with Yavapai
PRESCOTT - Neither the flu bug nor Mesa's defense could stop DeMario Butler on Thursday.
Suffering from a head cold and sore back, the freshman small forward picked apart the Thunderbird defense en route to one of his best games as a Matador in Arizona Western's 64-52 NJCAA Region I semifinals win over Mesa in Prescott.
Butler scored a game-high 21 points and played lockdown defense on one of the region's better scorers as the Matadors (21-11) advanced to tonight's championship game.
"Everyone was telling me that (Michael) Jordan had good games when he was sick in the playoffs, so I just wanted to come out and do the same," said Butler, who said he was up until 4 a.m. the night before deciding if he was going to be able to play. "My chest is burning right now but it was worth it."
The third-seeded Matadors will meet Arizona Community College Athletic Conference champion and top-seed Yavapai at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Yavapai. The Roughriders advanced to the title game with a 93-78 win over Eastern Arizona on Thursday. The region I champion earns a berth into the NJCAA national tournament March 15-20 in Hutchinson, Kan.
Butler's defense on a taller Fred Marshall held the first-team Division I all-region selection to eight points on 4-of-15 shooting. Marshall was the Thunderbirds' (20-11) second-leading scorer at 17.0 points per game in the regular season, good for 10th in the conference, but Butler didn't mind the assignment.
"That's why I got the weight room," he said flexing his bicep.
Butler's individual defense was just one part of AWC's team defense that held Mesa to 37 percent shooting from the field and 12 percent from three-point range. At one point Mesa was held scoreless for seven straight possessions in the second half.
"We played very good defensively," AWC coach Kelly Green said. "We held them to just one shot most of the time and really limited the open looks Marshall got. DeMario and Ben (Brown) did a good job limiting him."
Second-seeded Mesa had averaged 48 percent field goal shooting during the regular season.
"You have games where you don't shoot well, you just don't want to have it happen in a game of this magnitude," Mesa coach Alton Lister said. "That's very uncharacteristic of this team, but Arizona Western had something to do with why we didn't play well."
The win was the Matadors' third this season over Mesa.
AWC led 33-22 at halftime, but the Thunderbirds cut the margin to 37-34 with 12 minutes to play. Butler rallied the Matadors with a thunderous two-handed baseline dunk over two Mesa players and added a steal on the next Mesa possession.
"I just went baseline and saw heaven," Butler said of the Sportscenter top 10-worthy dunk. "That really got the team fired up and we upped the lead from there."
Freshman forward Robert Hines had 13 points and eight rebounds for AWC, while 6-foot-9 center Fernando Malaman had nine points - all on three-pointers from the top of the key - and a game-high 10 rebounds. Sophomore Luis Marquez added nine points.
Micky Burtnyk had 18 points to lead Mesa and Ryan Rourke added 14 points and seven rebounds.
After the Matadors had built their to 16 points with 4:06 to play, Burtnyk and Rourke led a feverish 8-0 Mesa run to cut AWC's lead to just eight at 60-52 with a minute to play. But the Matadors made 4-of-5 free throws down the stretch and Mesa missed four three-point attempts to seal the victory for AWC.
Yavapai (26-5) has been ranked in the national top-15 the entire season and beat AWC twice. But the two losses came by a combined total of just eight points.
"It's pick your poison with them," Green said. "If you try to focus on their perimeter guys, the inside guys hurt you and vice-versa. We're going to have to play solid all the way around."
Chris Gabel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6883.