INDIANAPOLIS — Rhode Island has proven itself a tough opponent for some of the better teams in the Atlantic-10.
It was no exception Saturday at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the Rams lost to ninth-ranked Butler 75-68 despite holding a 32-30 halftime lead and making things interesting down the stretch – as they have all year.
Nikola Maleseciv scored 18 points for Rhode Island (6-14, 1-6) in the team's fourth straight loss. Xavier Munford and Mike Powell each added 14 points to help give the Bulldogs (18-4, 5-2) a scare at home, where they've won 11 straight.
Rotnei Clarke led Butler with 23 points. Roosevelt Jones added 18 points – 13 in the second half – and Khyle Marshall scored 10 of his 13 points before the break.
Clarke did the bulk of his scoring in the first 11 of minutes of the second half, pacing Butler through a 15-3 run that proved too big of a deficit for the Rams to overcome. Clarke scored 12 points in the swing.
"They attacked the lane early and got the ball inside in the second half. They just played great," Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley said.
Clarke resembled his usual self for the most part after committing a season-high six turnovers against St. Louis. Since coming back from a neck injury suffered on Jan. 12 at Dayton, Clarke had committed a total of 10 turnovers in the two games since his injury.
"Last couple of games I just made careless mistakes with the ball, getting it to guys in the wrong spots," Clarke said. "I've got to just be smarter."
The Rams shot only 30 percent from the field in the second half, keeping themselves in the game largely at the foul line. They went 21-of-24 from the free throw line in the second period after managing only four attempts in the first half.
Butler pushed the lead to 67-54 with about 4 1/2 half minutes to play, but the Rams scored 11 points at the free throw line to make things interesting.
It was a familiar position for Rhode Island, which had lost its last three games by a combined 10 points.
"They're a very hard out as you can see," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "They haven't played a game in-league that hasn't been decided by more than four points. They've got skilled guys who can spread you out."
Butler played the completely opposite game, sputtering through the first half. Marshall kept his team in the game with a series of high-flying dunks and hustle plays that produced 10 of the Bulldogs' first 12 points.
"The difference between the second half beginning and the first half ending was we hit shots in the paint that we weren't hitting before," Stevens said.
Butler was coming off a totally different performance than Rhode Island's previous close-call – a game in which the Bulldogs weren't competitive at all. Their season-high 23 turnovers were much to blame for the blowout loss to the Billikens.
"We had different kinds of turnovers today," Stevens said. "Turnovers where we were being aggressive."
The Bulldogs played with heavy hearts after junior forward Erik Fromm's father succumbed to cancer in the morning. Fromm didn't suit up against Rhode Island.
"It's hard, these guys are really tight," Stevens said. "They know each other's parents and they appreciate all the support they get from each other. It's a really hard thing."
Butler has now won two of its last four conference games after starting league play with a 3-0 record. The Bulldogs sit a half game behind Xavier for the top spot in the A-10.
The Rams have dropped four in a row since winning 82-80 in overtime at Saint Louis on Jan. 19. They have now lost 25 straight against top-25 opponents since beating then-No. 21 Utah on Dec. 2, 1998.
"We've been close a lot of games, and our mindset is to never give up," Rhode Island guard Mike Powell said.