This is why Marquette hired Shaka Smart.
A head coach known for teaching scrappy defense, Smart had the Golden Eagles destructive on that end of the court Monday night and he got a signature victory early in his first season with a 67-66 upset over Illinois at Fiserv Forum.
MU guard Tyler Kolek scored the deciding points with a layup off a steal with 19 seconds left and then the Golden Eagles (3-0) secured the win with – what else? – another theft that ignited an ear-splitting roar from the crowd of 14,631 fans.
MU’s defense flustered the Illini (2-1) down the stretch, getting stops on 10 of Illinois’ last 11 possessions.
The Illini (2-1) – ranked 10th in the Ferris Mowers Men’s Basketball Coaches Poll and No. 11 by the Associated Press – were forced into 26 turnovers and didn’t score a field goal in the final 5 minutes 33 seconds.
That disruptive defense allowed MU to rally from a 12-point deficit in the second half and win despite shooting 5 for 17 on three-pointers and 18 of 31 on free throws.
“It’s big,” Smart said. “Because when you have games that come down to the end like this and when you don’t shoot the ball very well, miss some free throws, some guys don’t have their best offensive night, for guys to learn that they can win anyway. Which is a key phrase for us: win anyway. That gives you more belief the next time you’re in that situation.”
Grad transfer Darryl Morsell, who has carried MU’s offense early in the season, scored 21 points. He was also brought to the team for Smart to help establish a defensive identity in his last season of eligibility.
“I done played a lot of college games,” Morsell said. “I done seen a lot of different things, different endings. I’ve won a bunch of different ways. I think it was big for our young guys to see that if we just stay persistent, keep guarding and get stops when we’re supposed to, we got a chance to get the win.
“I don’t really think anything went our way today. We missed a lot of free throws. We missed a lot of shots that we usually make or that we work on a lot.”
Morsell then showed that he’s completely bought into Smart by echoing the coach’s talking point in preparation for this game.
“The theme of the week was ‘audacity,'” Morsell said. “I just like like how we had the audacity to stay confident and get that win today.”
A few minutes later, Smart expounded on that theme.
“Not a lot of people outside the locker room gave us a chance to win this game playing against a top-10 team,” Smart said. “But the guys believed and the guys stayed together.”
Kolek had the most audacious play, sneaking behind the Illinois’ Trent Frazier to knock the ball away and fly in for the layup with 18 seconds left while getting fouled. He missed the free throw, but that just left time for a game-clinching steal by Kur Kuath.
“I saw the guy’s head was turned,” Kolek said. “So I just ran up and tried to make a play and that was that.
“But that wasn’t the play that won us the game, we were down 11 maybe with five, eight minutes to go. We just fought ’em. I’m so proud of these guys. Even though it’s early in the year, we’ve come together. We’ve been so close with each other. That’s what all that matters in a game like this. Just caring about the guy next you.”
Amazingly, there was a chance Kolek could’ve missed the game after getting hit just above the knee on a collision against New Hampshire on Friday. He received intense treatment to play 37 minutes and score 12 points, including 2 three-pointers in the second half to jump-start MU’s offense.
“After the game the other night, I couldn’t really straighten my leg,” Kolek said. “I couldn’t really even walk. Obviously Brandon Yoder, our athletic trainer, we were working around the clock to really stimulate that leg and get it to where it needs to be.”
Trent Frazier scored 23 points to lead the Illini. Andre Curbelo, one of the nation’s top point guards, was harassed into 4-for-18 shooting and seven turnovers.
“Not really even getting a good look the last five minutes because we didn’t execute,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “We turned the ball over four times in that sequence. But really alarming the number of turnovers and the lack of ball movement. I thought Trent Frazier was great. Give Shaka and his kids a ton of credit.”
Illinois was playing without preseason All-American center Kofi Cockburn, who was sitting for the last time in a three-game suspension for selling merchandise before it was allowed by the NCAA. The Illini were also without 6-6 guard Austin Hutcherson (tailbone injury).
Illinois’ offense was bothered by MU’s ball-pressure and also the long-armed presence of Kuath, who finished with five blocks and two steals.
“I loved it,” Morsell said of Kuath. “He stepped up. Made some big free throws. Being a veteran guy, he’s just got to keep playing with confidence.”
Smart has only been head coach at MU for three games, but that’s enough time to inject energy into the program.
“This is just the beginning for us,” Smart said. “There’s going to be twists and turns and ups and downs. We’re probably not going to win every game.
“But I think this is a really good step for us. For our guys to understand that we can win a game like this. We can come back when we’re down double figures against a good team.”
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marquette upsets No. 10 Illinois for Shaka Smart’s first big win