In case anyone who follows college basketball was still skeptical, Marquette provided more hard evidence on Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum.
The Golden Eagles are good.
MU pulled away from Connecticut for an 82-76 victory – the second time this season that the Golden Eagles have picked off the No. 6 team in the country at home after beating Baylor on Nov. 29.
MU (14-4, 6-1 Big East) just re-entered the AP poll this week at No. 25, but the victory over the Huskies (15-3, 4-3) should open some more eyes.
BOX SCORE: Marquette 82, UConn 76
“We proved people wrong last year,” MU center Oso Ighodaro said. “And we returned our core guys and our culture is just continuing to build.
“I feel like we’ve had this belief in ourselves ever since the end of last season.”
Golden Eagles learn how to win close games
The Golden Eagles have rallied from halftime deficits to win their last three games. The narrative about the team earlier in the season was that it could not close out victories. MU held late leads in all of its losses.
“I think our guys through 18 games, there’s an even stronger belief than before that we can win against great teams going down the stretch of close games,” MU head coach Shaka Smart said. “Honestly, coming into this season, we had a lot of confidence as a team, our coaches and our players, but there were a lot of unknowns.
“And the fact that our guys are playing better down the stretch of games, I think it’s in a lot of ways because they’ve done it now. They’ve been in some games, and we took some lumps in some close games earlier in the year. And you’ve got to go through that experience.”
MU took the lead for good against the Huskies at 62-60 when Kam Jones (15 points) knocked in a crafty mid-range push shot with 8:52 remaining.
The Golden Eagles parried away every run by Connecticut, even when the Huskies got within three points several times in the final two minutes.
MU even got clutch free-throw shooting from Ighodaro, who sank all five of his attempts despite coming into the game 15 for 37 from the charity stripe.
“I believe in myself at the free-throw line,” Ighodaro said. “I just had a couple tough games this year at the free-throw line.
“I trust myself. I work every day at it. I think I’m a good free-throw shooter. My teammates believe in me. I just got to knock them down.”
Ighodaro battles size with quickness and guile
The Huskies boast a formidable front line with 6-foot-9, 245-pound Adama Sanogo and 7-2 freshman Donovan Clingan.
Clingan was a load off the bench with 20 points and 10 rebounds. He scored six points during a 16-0 run in the first half that gave Connecticut a 31-20 advantage.
But Ighodaro was able to leverage his quickness and passing vision to hold his own, filling the box score with 19 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“He’s very intelligent,” Smart said. “Uses angles. And then just fighting, trying to get his hands on the ball.
“I thought when he was able to stay on their bigger guys, we were much, much more effective. When he got switched off, man, they were just able to throw the ball up to Clingan, to Sanogo. That’s why we need two of Oso. We have who we have and I thought our guys showed great fight.”
Ighodaro provided the highlight of the game when he went up to catch an alley-oop from Jones and crammed a dunk over the massive Clingan while getting fouled.
“Kam does a great job putting it in a spot where I can go get it,” Ighodaro said. “And I just went and got it.”
Ighodaro’s unique game drew high praise from Connecticut coach Dan Hurley.
“I think he’s like a modern-day big man,” Hurley said. “That guy’s going to be a draft pick or at least he’ll play in the NBA for a long time, that guy, because of his ability to pass and face up.
“They set ball screens for him. And Shaka obviously deploys him really in a smart way. There’s a lot of great centers in college, obviously, and he’s unique. He’s going to play in the NBA.”
Marquette gets clutch contributions from several other players
Olivier-Maxence Prosper finished 17 points, getting to the free-throw line for seven attempts. Jones hit big baskets down the stretch, including a three-pointer with 1:04 left after Connecticut shaved the lead down to 73-70.
The Golden Eagles also got 21 points from their bench. Sean Jones scored all seven of his points in the first half and the speedy guard gave MU a needed jolt by racing down the court in the final seconds of the first half to nail a jumper to make it 37-33 at the break.
“You know that you have a good group when you really want to play more than five of them in crunch time,” Smart said. “And the flip side of that is if you’re coaching a team and you really only want two or three guys out there. Well you got to have five out there.
“And I thought tonight we could have put Chase Ross in the game late and he could have done a great job defensively on (Jordan) Hawkins. Sean Jones was terrific all game. Jop (David Joplin) went into the game and gave us a good lift. He’s such a threat offensively, but I thought defensively he went in and was way better in the second half than he was in the first half.”
Yes, MU is good and its depth is getting better.
“The great thing about this team is that it feels just like any other win,” Ighodaro said. “That’s something we’re continuing to try to build.
“Just stacking games and not getting too high or too low for an opponent and just trying to win every game we can.”