MILWAUKEE — Brad Autry admitted he was a bit exasperated after finding out he was the choice to serve as Marquette’s acting head coach.
With a million thoughts running through the assistant coach’s head, senior point guard Junior Cadougan put his arm around him and told him everything was going to be all right; he was going to make it so. If that required Cadougan stepping up and hitting big shots or grabbing a big rebound in Tuesday’s Big East opener against UConn, so be it.
As it turns out, Autry was faced with a big decision after being thrown into the fire in his first game as head coach, when Ryan Boatright hit a jumper to put Connecticut up by three with 5.9 seconds left.
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Should he call timeout or let his team go on the fly? Maybe Buzz Williams, who was serving a one-game, school-imposed suspension for recruiting violations committed by a former assistant coach, would have called a timeout to set something up.
Autry’s mind may have gone back to the conversation with Cadougan, because he let the senior go. And, delivering on his promise, Cadougan buried a 30-foot 3-pointer to send the game into overtime, where the Golden Eagles went on to an 82-76 win.
The Golden Eagles were 0 for 14 from beyond the arc prior to the shot, and Cadougan was just a 16.7 percent 3-point shooter on the season. But the senior stepped up when it mattered, then steadied the Golden Eagles (10-3, 1-0 Big East) in overtime.
As big as it was for Marquette to open Big East play with a victory, it might have been even more important to win the way it did. A weak-minded or soft team wouldn’t have won, wouldn’t have answered UConn like Marquette did.
Marquette, a team still trying to find its identity after losing its two best players from last season, grew up Tuesday night.
“As much as the win, and I’m ecstatic to win, I’m just so happy that I feel like we turned a corner into who we are with this team,” Autry said. “Not what last year’s team was, or two years ago. I think they feel that as much as anybody.”
During shootaround prior to Tuesday’s game, Autry lined up every returning player and asked them a simple question: Are you tough enough to win in the Big East? At least for one game, Marquette proved it was.
“Floor burns, big defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds,” Autry said of what made his team a winner. “It was a situation where we had to make some plays and at the times plays needed to be made, our guys did it. I was very, very, very proud of them.”
From the time Boatright hit the contested jumper to Cadougan’s shot, the BMO Harris Bradley Center was going crazy. Things got even wilder when the officials lined the teams up facing the wrong way to start the overtime period.
UConn won the tip going the wrong way, and Marquette’s Jamil Wilson goaltended a shot by Shabazz Napier on the first possession. The officials, confused as to what to do after realizing their mistake 12 seconds into overtime, ultimately decided to give Marquette the ball on the alternating possession.
As it turns out, rule five, section one, article three of the NCAA’s rule book states that when the official permits a team to go in the wrong direction and then the error is discovered, all activity and time consumed shall count as though each team had gone in the proper direction, meaning UConn should have been awarded the two points.
“The players went in the wrong direction,” Big East official Karl Hess said. “Because we allowed that to happen, the only thing that was wrong is there was a goaltend on the play. We should have scored the goaltend and give Connecticut the two points for that.”
The mistake didn’t directly impact the result, but still was a glaring error that only added to the maelstrom in the arena after the last-second shot. Again, Cadougan stepped in to aid Autry.
“Just stay poised and get your team settled down and move on to the next play,” Cadougan said.
Though Marquette has 17 conference games remaining on its schedule, the Golden Eagles began to answer some of the questions critics posed during nonconference play. Professing it would play to its competition, Marquette stepped up and got back to playing Williams’ style of basketball, even if he wasn’t there.
During the second half, Napier and Boatright hit tough shot after tough shot, but Marquette found a way to answer. Autry put it best when he said the Golden Eagles got back to a “mentality of toughness.”
And while this team still has flaws and a lot to work on, it scratched and clawed its way to a big win.
“We didn’t have our head coach tonight but our guys didn’t rely on me, they didn’t rely on our coaching staff, we all did it as one,” Cadougan said. “The sign of maturity that we have on our team is great. That’s going to take us a long way.”