Former Verdigris Star Sprains Neck During Game
Leading scorer Rotnei Clarke fell head-first into the backboard support, then rolled on his back and lay there dazed. He didn't even try to get up.
How bad was it? Wide-eyed Butler teammates gathered around and wondered.
"At that point, it's not about basketball anymore," senior center Andrew Smith said.
Turns out that it wasn't as bad as initially feared -- only a sprained neck -- but it's still a significant setback for No. 14 Butler. The Bulldogs pulled through without their leading scorer on Saturday, using their depth to beat Dayton 79-73 for their 11th straight win. Roosevelt Jones scored 16 points, helping Butler (14-2, 2-0 Atlantic 10) extend its best start in four years.
They came away feeling fortunate that Clarke didn't get hurt worse. He hit the bottom part of the padded backboard support after he was fouled while trying for a fast-break layup at 8:13 of the first half, his head and left shoulder taking the brunt of the collision.
At first, he lost sensation in his arms and legs.
"He said he couldn't feel anything," Jones said.
He was able to move his arms and legs while trainer Ryan Galloy checked him out on the court. A padded back brace was brought out, and Clarke was taken off the court on a stretcher, giving the thumbs-up sign.
He was taken to a nearby hospital for precautionary tests that were negative. It's unclear how long the Bulldogs will miss Clarke, who averages 17 points per game.
"He was emotional more than anything about having to come out of the game," Galloy said. "He's got no fracture. He'll be stiff and sore for a while. It's not like an ankle where you can tape it up."
The Bulldogs' defense and depth pulled them through against Dayton (10-6, 0-2), which has lost four of its last six and fell to 7-3 on its home court. Dyshawn Pierre and Vee Sanford scored 14 apiece for the Flyers.
It was one of Butler's grittiest wins during the streak, which includes away-from-home victories over then-No. 1 Indiana, Northwestern and Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs are off to their best start since they won 19 of their first 20 games during the 2008-09 season.
The Bulldogs put together a nine-point run around Clarke's injury to take the lead for good.
Clarke stole the ball from Matt Derenbecker and was going up for a layup when Derenbecker fouled him hard, sending his head and left shoulder into the padded base of the backboard support. Clarke lay on his back for several minutes while he was examined.
Coach Brad Stevens went to the hospital as soon as the game ended to see Clarke. Derenbecker shook his hand on the court and asked him to relay a message.
"I said 'Coach, please tell Rotnei it was not on purpose.' And he said, 'Matt, I know it wasn't on purpose. Don't worry,'" Derenbecker said. "It felt good to know that a coach of his caliber was able to realize that it wasn't a dirty play."
When Clarke was taken off the court, Stevens called his players together and told them it didn't appear to be a serious injury.
"He said, 'Rotnei's going to be all right, we need to just step up and keep playing," Smith said. "We played this game for Rotnei. We were all relieved to hear Rotnei is all right. It's just bad whiplash. He's going to be out for a while. We'll pick him up."
Smith had a pair of baskets during the nine-point run that made it 23-16. Minutes later, Khyle Marshall made a basket, was fouled and missed the free throw, but Butler got the rebound and Marshall scored on a layup as the Bulldogs stretched their lead to 31-20.
The Bulldogs shot 59 percent in the first half despite missing Clarke, who had five points before he got hurt.
Pierre missed an uncontested dunk to open the second half, and Butler went on a nine-point run for a 44-30 lead that was never in jeopardy. Alex Barlow had a steal and layup during the surge.
Back-to-back 3s by Sanford cut the lead to 61-56 with 6:35 to go, the closest the Flyers had been since the opening minute of the second half. Sanford scored 10 straight points for Dayton, keeping the Flyers in it.
Smith hit an uncontested 3-pointer from the right wing off a set play to blunt the comeback, and Butler scored its last 11 points off free throws. Dayton never got closer than four points.
"For whatever reason, we just did not have enough pop today," coach Archie Miller said. "A lot of that goes to Butler because when you play them, they have that ability to really sap your spirit at times with their play on both ends."