It is always sad to see a competitor, after laying it all on the line, head down after a crushing defeat. After all, when you compete as hard as Bulldogs Senior Rotnei Clarke did in #6 Butler’s (27-9) 74-72 loss to #3 Marquette (25-8) on Saturday night, you hope that maybe by some chance he will be able to keep his head high after the incredible effort the Bulldogs gave.
But the game of basketball is often cruel and full of heartache, and unlike the Bulldogs’ remarkable victory over Marquette in their first outing that saw Clarke hit a miracle shot to drop the Golden Eagles 72-71 back in November, the ball didn’t bounce the right way for Butler on Andrew Smith’s final shot of the game. And just like that, when a Butler squad was up 69-66 with 1:39 left in the game, the Bulldogs Sweet Sixteen hopes were thrashed and four seniors’ careers were ended at the university.
Enter the tears, with teammates patting him on the back as he gave his thoughts on his time with the team, of Senior Rotnei Clarke.
“It’s the best experience I’ve ever had,” said the Senior Clarke, who started to get a little choked up as he reflected on his time with the team. “I feel blessed to be with these guys and share the memories we’ve had this year. It was a goal for me to get here, and I just feel like I let these guys down. That’s all I can say.”
No one of course would ever fault Clarke, who hit five three-pointers on the way to a 24-point performance, for the outcome of the game. Throughout the game Clarke seemed as if he was throwing the basketball in the ocean, pulling up for heat checks on top of the key and lofty floaters off the dribble that kept Butler up the majority of the game. But Marquette’s defense eventually became unwavering, smothering Clarke on every opportunity and keeping him from scoring past the 15:10 mark of the second period when the Bulldogs took a 49-44 lead.
Clarke did have his opportunities, including a shot with :05 left in the game with the Bulldogs down 72-70, but a contested three well behind the line fell short of everything but the net. It was a difficult shot, one that Clarke will play surely in his head multiple times, but Superman can’t be the hero every game. Meaning it was the last shot for the Arksansas State-transfer in a Bulldogs uniform, who’s one year playing for the program was everything Butler’s coaching staff could have hoped for.
“If Rotnei Clarke never scored a point it would have been immeasurable because of how much he gets in the gym,” said Butler Head Coach Brad Stevens.
“And I also told my guys, how many people would average 15 in the SEC, and then come in and be coach-able? He never questioned a word I said in two years, and it was amazing. Not that they would be bad, it’s just they could say I did it another way and it was pretty good. He never said that.”
Clarke wasn’t the only emotional player after the Bulldogs loss. Butler’s big man Andrew Smith, the final link to the program’s two trips to the NCAA Tournament championships, found himself just as disappointed with his final chance to be the hero of the game. Smith was found at the top of the key with two seconds left in the game on an in-bounds play gone wrong, as a camouflaged Marquette zone tricked the Bulldogs players into calling an in-bounds meant for a man-to-man defense.
So there was Smith, catching the ball at the top of key in an floundering situation, who was forced to put up a shot that looked as if he stumbled. Big men usually don’t find themselves in position to take contested three-pointers to win NCAA Tournament games, and Smith tried to help out his near-impossible situation.
“I was trying to pump fake and I thought he would go for it,” said Smith. “He didn’t and he played it great. That’s not my position to know.”
Smith, who had many stand-out performances throughout his senior season, played a great game once again on Saturday night despite the finish. Smith finished with 17 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and helped limit the Marquette big men throughout the game. Yet after the game, when asked about the lasting legacy he helped build at Butler with three NCAA tournament births, the humble giant tried to pass along all the credit one final time.
“I personally didn’t do a whole lot,” said Smith when asked about how far the program had come since he stepped on campus. “It was already a great team before I got here, but yeah, I like to think I was able to help out a little bit here and there. I know I’m leaving it in good hands.”
Coach Stevens took the time to give Smith the proper credit he deserved.
“Andrew Smith has grown into as much of a player and a vocal leader as anybody we’ve ever had,” said Stevens.
Also leaving the program after Saturday night’s loss is Senior Chase Stigall, scoring three points in his final game of a Bulldogs jersey. Teammates and Stevens alike all gave credit to Stigall for being such a great team leader his senior season, taking younger players such as Alex Barlow and Kellen Dunham, under his wing and tutelage despite them taking the playing minuets he was used too away.
Stigall seemed calm after the loss, but perhaps that’s because it hasn’t quite hit him that his final season has really come to a finish.
“It’s a little too early now,” said Stigall.
“I think it will really hit me Monday from teaching when I’m not going straight to practice. I think that’s when it is going to hit me that I’m not going to practice and that it’s over, and I’m kind of done. Finished. But I’ve had a great five years, and like I’ve said earlier, and I owe to everybody and everything associated with Butler. I will always be in debt to them. I am thankful for that.”
Lastly, there is perhaps the lesser known senior in Emerson Kampen. The senior center’s season stat-line reads as two points, two blocks, and three rebounds throughout the entire season. Yet every teammate spoke highly of him, and their respect was evident before each half of Saturday’s tournament game, where Kampen had the full attention of his team as he gave the final speech to all of the players before running out for the first and second half.
“Emerson Kampen is the leader of this team,” said Stevens. “He is the pulse of this team. He is going to be missed for all the behind the scenes stuff that he’s always done for us.”
Understandably so, all four seniors would rather be traveling to Washington D.C. this week to play for the opportunity to advance to the Elite Eight. And understandably, the pain of the loss will probably linger from a game that seemingly got away thanks in part to Marquette Junior Vander Blue’s 29 point performance, including a third three to tie the game at 69-69 from a player that struggles from behind the arc.
But in due time, eventually, they will be able to relive with smiles a senior year that saw a memorable run at the Maui Invitational, the program’s first ever victory over a number-one ranked squad in an 88-86 overtime victory over Indiana University, the thrilling finish 64-63 finish over than ranked #8 Gonzaga on national television, and a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
When that happens, these four seniors will truly hang their heads high on a season that will long be remembered by Butler fans.