HARTFORD, Conn. -- Marquette coach Buzz Williams had a hard time recovering from the meltdown at Louisville back in mid-January.
He couldn’t imagine going through that again without taking a gamble.
So with his team down two and time winding down in regulation, he instructed the Golden Eagles to create havoc, to somehow get the ball out of Kemba Walker’s hands and then to foul another UConn player in the hope that the Huskies would miss at least one free throw and Marquette would have a shot at the tie.
If it all played out as planned, Marquette would have five seconds remaining in regulation with the chance to tie or win.
What happened was much more efficient.
The Golden Eagles forced Walker to turn the ball over with 10 seconds left. Dwight Buycks got the ball, fed Darius Johnson-Odom, who turned down a 3-pointer, pump faked, nearly lost the ball and drove to the bucket for a game-tying basket before Walker’s shot at the buzzer missed.
Johnson-Odom scored nine of his team-high 17 points in overtime, Marquette dominated the extra period and won 74-67. The result stunned the crowd at the XL Center, UConn interim coach George Blaney (who was filling in for Jim Calhoun while he attended the funeral of his wife’s sister in New Hampshire) and anyone who had visions of seeing a bubble team in New York at the Big East tournament in two weeks.
If the Golden Eagles can hold serve in their final three games -- beating Providence and Cincinnati at home and Seton Hall on the road -- they should be the 11th Big East team to receive an NCAA berth. There would be no New York bubble drama and nothing more for the Big East teams to play for other than NCAA seeding and overall pride.
That sounds just fine to the Marquette camp.
“It was an out-of-body experience at Louisville,’’ Williams said of losing an 18-point deficit in the final 5:44 in a 71-70 loss to the Cards. “I didn’t think anyone could deduct that we would win based on the statistics.’’
Against UConn, Marquette got outrebounded 57-43, shot just 4-of-20 on 3s, and shot 37 percent overall. But numbers don’t matter when it comes to finally playing with purpose and finishing a game the way Williams knew they could.
“We closed this game out the way we should have against Louisville,’’ Williams said. “Hopefully this gives us confidence to end the season.’’
The Eagles had plenty of chances to extend a double-digit lead before getting slammed by the Huskies to start the second half. UConn went from down 11 at halftime to up eight. But Marquette adjusted and fought right back.
Through a video program called Synergy, Williams studied how Walker scored every one of his buckets against the Eagles in their previous meeting. Marquette tried to do everything it could to ensure that Walker wasn’t the one who beat them. The All-American candidate had plenty of chances, but shot 10-of-27 (2-of-6 from 3).
The game plan at the end of regulation was simple: get the ball out of Walker’s hands and then foul.
“We weren’t going to dictate or have him determine the end,’’ Williams said. “Whether it was right or wrong, that’s the way we wanted it to play out.’’
Buycks said the Eagles had complete faith in Williams’ decision to play out the game defensively rather than foul Walker immediately.
“It was like we were playing wide receivers, trying to dictate where the ball was going to go, we got the big stop [and turnover],’’ Buycks said. “We’ve got tough Big East games, but we’ve got to have the right mindset and keep on pushing.’’
Marquette has played close games under Williams for two seasons. The Golden Eagles couldn’t close out most of them this season.
Marquette gave Duke a scare in Kansas City -- and lost.
Marquette was within one possession of Gonzaga in KC -- and lost.
Marquette was within two possessions of Wisconsin at home -- and lost.
Marquette was one shot away from Vanderbilt in Nashville -- and lost.
The Pitt loss on the road was by eight, the Louisville loss was by one, the Notre Dame and Villanova road losses were by five each.
There were wins over Syracuse, Notre Dame and West Virginia. But none were on the road. Now the Eagles have a significant win away from Milwaukee.
“We know we dug ourselves a hole and that Louisville game really cost us,’’ Johnson-Odom said. “We had to come out and finish strong. What helped us control at the end was our conditioning. We knew we had to be the most conditioned team that had the most energy to beat a team like UConn.’’