Marquette draws on past adversity to beat Colorado and reach the Sweet 16

INDIANAPOLIS — When Marquette’s players convened for their first prep meeting last Monday after the NCAA Tournament draw had been announced, it wasn’t a surprise to them that coach Shaka Smart immediately turned on some game film. Instead of scouting first-round opponent Western Kentucky, however, Smart had a different team in mind. Because to move forward, he figured Marquette first needed to look back.

What the Golden Eagles watched were the final three minutes and 36 seconds of their second-round NCAA Tournament game a year ago, when they were a No. 2 seed against No. 7 seed Michigan State and trailed by a point. Rather than meeting the moment, Marquette wilted. Players relived it all, some pointing out on film just how antsy everyone on the team looked in what would become a nine-point loss. The message was clear.

“If we ever get back in that situation, let’s just go all out,” Marquette forward David Joplin said. “Be loose, just go out there and have fun and attack them.”

Sure enough, Marquette found itself in a familiar situation on Sunday, as a No. 2 seed once again in a second-round matchup against No. 10 seed Colorado. At the media timeout with three minutes to go in regulation, the score was tied. And this time, the Golden Eagles didn’t flinch.

The 81-77 victory at Gainbridge Fieldhouse not only avenged a disappointing finish a year ago but allowed the Golden Eagles to reach their first Sweet 16 in 11 years. The release of emotions was evident when the final buzzer sounded. Smart clapped, point guard Tyler Kolek hugged his teammates one by one and Kam Jones sprinted to half-court to leap into Chase Ross.

“I told the guys before the game, ‘This moment has been in our nightmares, and we’re not running from it anymore,’” Kolek said.

Smart shortened his rotation for the game to just seven players, all of whom were on the floor for that Michigan State game last year. Marquette looked more aggressive against Colorado during the first half to take a 45-34 lead at the break, and it was fair to wonder whether the Buffaloes — who played a First Four game on Wednesday before even arriving in Indianapolis — had much gas left in the tank.

The answer came swiftly, because Colorado trimmed its deficit to three points less than two minutes into the second half, then briefly collected its first lead at 55-54 on KJ Simpson’s 3-pointer with 14:41 left. Kolek responded with a short jumper, and the teams were largely within one possession of each other the rest of the way.

By the time the final media timeout arrived, the score was tied at 74. The Golden Eagles took the lead for good when Kolek found Ross, who buried a 3-pointer with 2:53 remaining from the left wing while falling down.

“Coach always preaches ‘Eff-it shooting,’ so when I got it, it was ‘Eff it,’ and it went in,” Ross said.

Kolek scored in the final minute on a turnaround in the lane, and Joplin drilled two free throws with 7.4 seconds remaining to seal the victory and account for the final margin. Marquette (27-9) advanced to play No. 11 seed NC State (24-14) in Dallas on Friday.

“Last year where we fell apart, we came together this year,” Marquette forward Oso Ighodaro said.

Smart said the team had endured several difficult situations over the past year to set the team up well to handle the challenge. He cited Marquette’s loss to Michigan State, reserve guard Sean Jones tearing the ACL in his right knee in January, Ross missing five games with a shoulder injury and Kolek missing six games leading into the NCAA Tournament with an oblique strain.

“We’ve had some adversity,” Smart said. “But guys have never wavered in terms of their belief in our playing and our way, and they stayed connected with one another. Relationships is our number one advantage, and that’s just something that we believe in, and I think it won us the game today.”

For as much as the outcome Sunday served as a cathartic moment for Marquette, it also represented an important one for the 46-year-old Smart. The last time one of his teams made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was when VCU advanced to the Final Four 13 years ago. He made four more NCAA Tournament appearances at VCU, three during his next stop at Texas and in each of his first two seasons at Marquette without another Sweet 16 appearance. Smart said he was grateful to help uphold the high standard that has been established with the program over the years.

“Personally, I don’t think he gets the respect he deserves,” Ighodaro said. “I see a lot of stuff on ESPN and stuff about he can’t win in March. I believe in him. I think he’s the best coach in the country. We want to play for him. We want to play for each other, and that’s what we’ve been doing all season.”

Kolek, in his second game back from injury, recorded his second consecutive double-double, finishing with 21 points and 11 assists while repeatedly creating through drives to the basket. Jones scored 18 points despite playing only 24 minutes with foul trouble. Every player who stepped on the court scored to help Marquette accomplish would it couldn’t last season. As Joplin declared in the locker room afterward: “Finally!”

“It was just a year ago in the locker room, it was the complete opposite feeling,” Jones said. “We don’t take that for granted, and we’re happy to still be dancing.”

(Photo of Chase Ross: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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