OMAHA, Neb. – When the Marquette men’s basketball team was picked to finish ninth in the Big East by league coaches in October, point guard Tyler Kolek was overhead uttering a phrase at the league’s media day that has become a mantra for the chip-on-their shoulder Golden Eagles and their fans.
The edited version for a family newspaper: “Forget ‘em.”
The fiery Kolek is the id of MU’s personality, so it made perfect sense that he hit the biggest shots that placed MU on the cusp of clinching a regular-season conference championship.
In the biggest Big East game of the regular season, the 10th-ranked Golden Eagles rallied from an eight-point deficit at halftime to claim a dramatic 73-71 victory over No. 19 Creighton at the CHI Health Center on Tuesday.
BOX SCORE: Marquette 73, Creighton 71
With three games remaining before the league tournament, MU (22-6, 14-3 Big East) is in the driver’s seat for the conference title. The Bluejays (18-10, 12-5) fell two games behind. Providence, which is alone in second place at 12-4, plays at Connecticut on Wednesday.
“Anyone of us can step up and make plays,” Kolek said. “I’m the leader. I’m a veteran guy.
“In those situations, 18,000 people screaming at you, you got to have some big balls to step up and make a play and that’s what I did.”
After MU took a 10-point lead, it went over seven minutes without a field goal, and Creighton rallied to tie the game at 67-67. Kolek answered by swooping in for a layup with his right hand.
The Bluejays tied the game again, then Kolek put MU ahead for good with a left-handed floater with 29 seconds left.
“He’s come a long way,” MU head coach Shaka Smart said. “Last year he wasn’t even in the game at crunch time here, 365 days ago.
“Now he’s got the ball in his hands, he’s making these decisions.”
Oso Ighodaro and Kam Jones add big performances
Kolek finished with 18 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals to bolster his case for Big East player of the year. But he had plenty of help.
Kam Jones kept MU withing striking distance in the first half with 10 points and he finished with a team-high 19.
Oso Ighodaro was a big catalyst of the second-half surge. In the first half, with 7-foot-2 Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner playing way off of Ighodaro, the MU big man played passively.
But in the second half, Ighodaro made all six of his shots and scored 14 of his 18 points.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” Ighodaro said. “We knew they were probably going to guard me like that, and just trying to use that to our advantage and get to the next action. Get my teammates involved. We just tried to find ways to score.”
Ighodaro even nailed down two free throws when Creighton fouled him intentionally with just over three minutes remaining and MU clinging to a 63-60 lead.
Ighodaro is a 51.6% free-throw shooter this season, but has knocked down many clutch attempts from the charity stripe.
“I thought Oso’s play was only exceeded by his leadership,” Smart said. “All the little things he did to lift up his teammates, to help his teammates just to have a little bit more belief in themselves and our plan and what we’re doing made all the difference.”
Shaka Smart pleased with Marquette’s defense
MU’s defense also helped turn the tide, with five steals in the first five minutes of the second half.
Nine of Creighton’s 15 turnovers came after halftime. MU guard Stevie Mitchell had five steals and has 11 over his last two games.
“It was a gut-check for us,” Smart said. “Because we we knew we had to defend better. We needed to be better with more active hands.
“I believe we got 11 deflections in the first four or five minutes of the second half. Guys were doing a great job getting their hands all over the ball.”
Still, MU needed a little luck. After Kolek put MU ahead with 29 seconds left, Creighton’s Trey Alexander missed a three-pointer.
“It’s just one of those things, you kind need things to go your way,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “But we had a good look to win the game and unfortunately, it didn’t go in.”
Marquette eyes first Big East title since 2012-13 season
MU will play DePaul at Fiserv Forum on Saturday and then at Butler on Feb. 28 before finishing the regular season against St. John’s on March 4.
“We had a quiet confidence about us in the summer,” Smart said. “And even in the preseason. In our room we felt like we were better than anybody thought.
“Because of the character of our players, they didn’t really get caught up in what anyone was saying. We use that as motivation, but what’s much more a factor that drives us is the belief that our guys have in each other.”
Early in the season, MU had trouble closing out tight games. The Golden Eagles have grabbed control of the Big East with back-to-back thrilling victories.
“We’re going to come in here, or anywhere we go, with an edge about us,” Smart said. “To do everything we can to believe in ourselves that we can go win.
“There’s no other way. You can’t tiptoe in here. But, yeah, the last two games were huge for us in terms of having that in our pocket and knowing we can come back.”
Kolek won’t let his team lose its edge.
“This was a big game but I think the next three are equally or even more important,” Kolek said. “Just because we know what’s on the line and we know what we have to play for.
“We got to keep our razor focus, just like we were for this game and stay locked in for the next three.”
No expletives needed for emphasis.
Kolek had the answer again with a push shot.
Creighton’s Alexander missed a good look at a three-pointer and Kam Jones sealed the win with two free throws.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marquette beat Creighton at CHI Health Center, 73-71