Marquette keeps enemies close, beats them

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Buzz Williams summed up Marquette basketball in his five years at the university with one simple but telling line.

“I don’t want to be Mr. Tactician,” Williams said. “I don’t want our program known in that regard. I don’t want to be tactical, I want to be tough.”

His current team might be the toughest and most resilient of them all. The Golden Eagles overcame an eight-point halftime deficit Saturday to pull out yet another game in the final minute, beating Butler, 74-72, to advance to their third straight Sweet 16.

Marquette (25-8) last made three consecutive trips to the Sweet 16 under legendary coach Al McGuire from 1972-74. The Golden Eagles will face either Miami (Fla.) or Illinois on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

In the NCAA tournament, a play here or a play there and the script is completely different. Marquette walked the edge and lived dangerously in each of its two wins at Rupp Arena, but the toughness and experience the Golden Eagles have in close games shone through at the most critical of times.

“That’s just another Marquette game,” said Williams, whose team is 3-1 in overtimes and 2-1 in one-point games this season. “We’re not good enough to blow anybody out. We’re just good enough to get blown out. And if we can turn it into a fight and make it ugly, then it probably trends toward it helping us the most.”

Marquette never panicked in Lexington. Not down five to Davidson with 41 seconds to play, not down eight to Butler (27-9) at halftime, not even when it turned over the ball up 72-70 with 2.7 seconds on the clock.

As visions of Rotnei Clarke drilling a prayer of a game-winner against the Golden Eagles last November in Maui danced through the heads of the Marquette faithful, the team took Clarke — who was scoreless for the final 15:09 of the game after lighting it up early — completely out of the play and forced Butler’s center to try a desperation 3-pointer.

Lightning didn’t strike twice for Butler. Andrew Smith’s attempt was way off. The play was perfectly defended, but Williams wouldn’t tell an inquiring reporter what he did to throw off Butler — Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens admitted as much himself.

“The hardest thing in life to get is momentum, and the hardest thing in life to keep is momentum,” Williams said. ” … I want to see if we can win another game in the NCAA tournament, and so the reason why (I won’t answer the question is) because the next game we play is going to be a one-possession game.”

He’s got a point. Marquette has won five one-possession games this season. The Golden Eagles also have lost four games by four points or fewer. There’s a good chance Thursday’s regional semifinal is going to come down to a possession here or a possession there.

“I feel like every game that we play is going to be a grind out, hard boxing match just from the start to the end,” Marquette point guard Junior Cadougan said. “Marquette is known for grinding it out. We grind every day and we come ready to play every game.”

In fact, Marquette basketball is becoming synonymous with that style.

“We just always find ways to pull it out and just show our heart and our togetherness because it’s not about the individual on this team, it’s about fighting for the next person, not wanting to finish,” Marquette guard Vander Blue said. “It’s all about (fighting) for the next person.”

To Williams and his players, making the Sweet 16 is great. But they have bigger plans. Sure, they’ve made the Sweet 16 the last two years, but the Golden Eagles also have lost both times.

Marquette hasn’t made it to the Elite Eight since its Dwyane Wade-powered Final Four season of 2003. Williams wants to get the weight off the shoulders. Any secrets that can help his team achieve that goal will be kept close to the vest.

“We’re getting the same test we’ve gotten the last two years, and I want to pass it this year,” Williams said. ” … I don’t want to tell you that because I want to pass the Sweet 16 test.”

Follow Andrew Gruman on Twitter.