NEW YORK – The Marquette men’s basketball team doesn’t care what you think.
Picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East, the Golden Eagles won the first outright title in school history with the most wins ever in the conference.
Even though MU is the top-ranked and sixth-ranked team in the country, what about the fact that most pundits picked fourth-ranked Connecticut for the league title at Madison Square Garden?
On Friday, the Golden Eagles cruised to a tense 70-68 victory over the Huskies and will play in the Big East title game for the first time since joining the conference in 2005.
Box Score:Marquette 70, Connecticut 68
Want to say MU has no chance in the semis in front of a crowd of 19,812 fans? You should know better.
“I want to say this out of respect,” MU head coach Shaka Smart said, “but I felt like a lot of people were giving the game to UConn. And comments were made about who owned the garden and things of that nature. And, you know, wait a minute, we won this league. So we are not taking a back seat to anyone.
“You can say that, but then it’s another thing to go and do it. You know it’s going to be tough. You know it’s going to come down to the last minute or even second of the game. And it did. So you know our guys were able to do what we said we were going to do.
Do you want to see MU’s efficient offense, but are you worried about the team’s defense in the rivalry game? The Golden Eagles dug deep this game on the defensive end and made five straight stops to hold the Huskies scoreless for the final 2 minutes and 38 seconds.
MU will play Xavier on Saturday in the championship game. The teams split the regular season series.
“I feel like we’re underdogs every game,” MU’s Oso Igotaro said. “People still don’t believe in us the way we believe in ourselves.
“Everybody was picking UConn and we came out with a win. So we put that chip on our shoulder every game we play.”
Tyler Kolek has a strong start, then David Joplin comes to the rescue
Golden Eagles are built differently. Sophomore shooting guard Kam Jones, crawling on his hands and knees as the TikTok trend inspired by Rihanna’s performance at the Super Bowl, showed no visible nerves as he came out for the players’ introductions.
Big East player of the year Tyler Koleg was relentlessly attacking a defense anchored by Connecticut’s 6-foot-9, 245-pound Adama Sanoko and several athletic players.
Kolek scored 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting before he was called for an offensive foul with less than three minutes left in the first half for his second individual game. Igotaro, the other focal point of MU’s offense, was already on the bench with two fouls.
That year’s Big East Sixth Man, David Joplin, was to perform from a star studio just a few blocks south of Broadway.
The 6-foot-7 Joplin hit 2 three-pointers in the first half and struggled defensively with Sanoco and 7-2 Donovan Klingen.
“Just keep fighting,” Joplin said. “When we’re dealing with foul trouble, I know I have to come to the fight to stay put and be smart.
“If they want to post me out there, I have to manage the offensive end. They have to come out and defend me. I took advantage of that.”
Olivier-Maxence Prosper leads the defensive effort
The teams entered tied 38-38, and the game had the makings of a Big East Classic.
The second half was awarded.
Igotaro played just six minutes into the second half, picking up his third foul after just 45 seconds and then his fourth with 11 minutes remaining.
Koleg and Joplin picked up their fourth fouls a few minutes later. That means Smart will have to rely on rookies Chase Rose and Ben Gould in crunch time.
“It’s a testament to the depth we have in our team,” Smart said. “At one point, I looked out and we saw freshmen and sophomores there fighting, struggling, scratching for their lives.
“They didn’t blink. They were lost in the night fighting. It was a ton of fun to watch.
MU had to rely on its defense, holding Olivier-Maxens Prosper’s lockdown effort on Huskies sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins, who averaged 16.5 points per game and shot 37.7% on three-pointers.
Hawkins finished with five points on 2-for-11 shooting.
“When you play a guy that cuts well, that moves well, has a very quick trigger and can really shoot the ball, you have to be on the edge and alert at all times,” Prosper said. “You really have to anticipate what he’s doing.
“You can’t react to what he does. You have to really try to anticipate, blow their screens as much as you can and then be more competitive all the time.
Marquette will play Xavier for the championship on Saturday night
Without Kolek and Ikotaro generating offense, the Golden Eagles got big three-pointers from Ross and Jones, who finished with 14 points.
The biggest shot came from Prosper, whose triple gave MU a 70-66 lead with 3:42 left.
“We pick each other up,” Prosper said. “No matter the circumstances, no matter the foul trouble, no matter what, we’ve got enough guys on this roster that can impact the game and help us win. That’s what we did today.
“We didn’t look at it like, oh, we don’t have most of the stars. We said OK, this is a challenge. We’re going to bring everything we’ve got, and then what the outcome will be.”
The Golden Eagles didn’t score again after that bucket.
Igotaro and Kolek came back with 2:14 left, but Kolek missed three shots and Igotaro couldn’t hit the free throw.
But in the final four minutes, MU’s defense allowed only two rebounds from Sanoco (19 points and 11 rebounds).
Jones bullied Huggins into a miss at the buzzer, setting off a wild celebration.
“These guys, if you cut them open, you can see championship DNA in them,” Smart said. “It’s exciting because these guys are in their second year. We’ve got three freshmen playing significant minutes. We’ve got another sophomore in Stevie (Mitchell) and three juniors.
“The reason they made that character about them was the way they felt about each other. That allowed us to respond when we were faced with adversity.
Doubt them at your own peril.
Further:Get to know the seven teams Marquette could face in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament
Further:Bucks guard Pat Connaughton and Marquette’s Tyler Koleg have a unique friendship. Here’s the story behind it.