LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Of course it played out like that. The last time Marquette and Butler had met before Saturday was on Nov. 19 in Maui, in a Bulldogs win with a finish so dramatic ESPN has used the footage of Rotnei Clarke’s buzzer-beating three in commercials. And the last time the Eagles had taken the floor in Lexington, two days earlier against 14th-seeded Davidson, they engineered this NCAA tournament’s first jolt of heartbreak by erasing the Wildcats’ five-point lead in the final 30 seconds to break their underdog hearts, the latest in what has been a Marquette season full of games decided in the closing moments. The Eagles are a No. 3 seed, one of three Big East co-champions, but they are quick to remind you that they are nobody’s darlings, that every rung in their climb from seventh in their conference’s preseason poll to the Sweet 16 has been earned through gritted teeth.
And so of course the most recent one, Saturday’s 74-72 win over the Bulldogs was another struggle, one that was not decided until Andrew Smith’s stumbling heave missed the basket at the buzzer, sending the Eagles onward by the smallest of margins, one they hammered out with the well-crafted will that got them there.
It was, as coach Buzz Williams told the media afterward, “a microcosm of our culture,” a striving forged in the Eagles perennial underdog status. Every fall they are shipped to an off-campus campsite to stay in bunk beds, stripped of their electronics and roused from their slumber in the early morning hours for rigorous conditioning drills. They are reminded at every turn how little some outside the program expect of them -- of the commercial with Clarke and the TV analysts who said they might be upset by Davidson -- and to draw strength from their journey, as assistant Jerry Wainwright had typed on a poster hung in the locker room Saturday. “These,” said Vander Blue after Saturday’s win, “are the games we’re built for."
At the half, Marquette trailed by eight, and one thing they did not appear built for was stopping Clarke. The senior transfer from Arkansas is a deadeye shooter -- as the Eagles knew all too well -- and in the first half he made three of six from deep, adding a few free throws and two-pointers to score 18 points. Marquette was 20 minutes from being sent home, a point assistant Brad Autry made extremely clear in the locker room -- said Blue, “I can’t say exactly what he was saying -- a lot of cuss words” -- and so in the second half the Eagles changed the game with their pressure, speeding up the pace and doing a better job of contesting Clarke’s shots off screens, ultimately holding him scoreless for the game’s final 15 minutes.
But even without Clarke’s scoring, the Bulldogs continued to trade blows with the Eagles, who erased their margin early in the second half to turn the game into a series of the type of emphatic, tight-game plays on which momentum is so often seen as shifting but in this game simply would not. The three from Erik Fromm to put Butler ahead by four with just under 13 minutes left. Blue’s go-ahead breakaway dunk after stealing the ball from Kameron Woods, who lay flat on the court as Blue threw down on the other end and screamed toward the Rupp Arena ceiling. Khyle Marshall’s cutting, poster-worthy slam to put the Bulldogs up two with five minutes left. Six-foot-1 point guard Junior Cadougan, of whom Williams said is often “brutal” at halftime, scoring on a layup while absorbing contact from the 6-11 Smith a minute later. The traded jumpers from Jamil Wilson and Woods between the 3- and 2- minute marks. The game-tying three by Blue, who finished with a game-high 29 points, from the corner with 1:25 to go.
All of which set up a high-tension ending to rival Marquette’s against Davidson 48 hours earlier, the kind of stunner the Eagles nearly found themselves on the opposite end of this time around. Marquette led by two with five seconds on the clock when Clarke -- cue traumatic flashbacks in Milwaukee -- fired a potential go-ahead three from the left wing. The attempted remake missed, careening out of bounds, and the Bulldogs fouled Davante Gardner after the inbound pass, who hit both free throws to go up by four with 4.7 seconds on the clock. But the Bulldogs were able to strike back quickly on a full-court lob from Emerson Kampen to Smith, who converted it into a layup that was called for goaltending when Wilson blocked it after it hit the backboard.
Which was when the Eagles had their own Davidson moment, one fittingly orchestrated by Blue and Wilson, the heroes of that comeback. Blue served as the inbounder, trying to loft a pass to the 6-7 Wilson, who was being guarded by 5-11 guard Alex Barlow, as he headed toward the sideline. “I tried to chop my feet so Van could throw it over the top, but I took the extra step and tried to reach out and get it,” Wilson explained. “[Barlow] kind of nudged me.” The pass glanced off Wilson’s fingers and out of bounds, giving Butler another chance for a dagger.
In the ensuing timeout, Brad Stevens drew up two plays for his Bulldogs, one for if the Eagles employed a zone and another for if they went man-to-man, as they had been mixing the schemes throughout the game. But Marquette disguised its defense and Butler ran the wrong play; Clarke was swarmed and the ball went to Smith beyond the three-point line, where Wilson guarded him. “I just wanted to stay down, not cause any fouls because he’s a pretty good free-throw shooter,” Wilson explained after the game. Smith tried to pump fake, lost his footing, and put up what he would later call a “junk shot” that missed wildly. And so he was left staring high and into the distance and then crouching to gather his emotions as Marquette celebrated its emergence in yet another nail-biter.
Williams marked the occasion by dancing with his two sons, a gesture he said that he regretted in the post-game press conference, but an understandable one nonetheless. (Even moreso given Williams’ disclosure that his wife, Corey, spent two days in a Lexington hospital after an emergency appendectomy.) Yet he was careful to note that next week’s Sweet 16 -- the third consecutive one to which Williams has guided Marquette -- is an accomplishment he hopes to move past for the first time in his career. “I don’t want to play in the NCAA tournament anymore,” he told the media, “and as humble as I can say it, I want to see if we can win another game in the NCAA tournament.” It was a point he made to his team too. “He told us, ‘You get the same test over and over until you pass,’” forward Chris Otule said. “You can’t explain it better than that.”