Marquette 80, Northern Illinois 66: Golden Eagles overcome a sluggish start

Ben Steele
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Marquette's Oso Ighodaro attempts to block a shot from Northern Illinois guard Keshawn Williams in the first half on Saturday.

The Marquette men's basketball team seemed stuck in a post-holiday funk in the first few minutes against Northern Illinois on Saturday.

Head coach Shaka Smart needed to yank them out of it. He pulled all five starters just under four minutes into the game.

The Golden Eagles eventually got going, but still fell into listless stretches before finishing off an 80-66 victory at Fiserv Forum.

"I didn't like the stance we had on defense," Smart said. "That's been a huge emphasis for us, just playing in a stance. That's something that we will definitely look at tomorrow on film and show these guys."

Box score:Marquette 80, Northern Illinois 66

More:A rundown of Marquette's victories over top-10 teams in the past 20 years

MU (6-1) made the first two baskets, but then the Huskies (1-5) scored seven straight and prompted Smart to send Stevie Mitchell, Oso Ighodaro, Kam Jones, Greg Elliott and David Joplin to the scorer's table.

"I don't think you can be at your best if you're not in a stance," Smart said. "It's a real good indication of being lost in the fight on the defensive end. And we didn't get our hands on the basketball. Those first three-and-a-half, four minutes, I think we had two deflections.

"And then Stevie and those guys came in and we had like 11 deflections in the next five or six minutes. So that starting group, if they're going to start for us, they're going to need to come with better energy than that. Otherwise, we can make an adjustment and start somebody else or take them out of the game. We're fortunate we have some guys that can come of the bench and give us a lift and that's exactly what those guys did."

Mitchell, a freshman guard, was the immediate spark. He scored seven straight points to help the MU reserves grab back the lead. Then once Smart deemed the starters ready to return, Mitchell joined them for a stretch and helped the Golden Eagles take control with a 12-0 run that gave them a 33-20 lead with 2:44 remaining in the first half.

"Just energy," Mitchell said. "That's something we emphasize a lot. Just playing with energy. He wanted us to go in and try to help pick the energy up. We just went in, played hard, played together. 

"Obviously Coach Smart knows what's he's talking about. We just tried to play with energy because that's what he told us to do."

Mitchell finished with 11 points, four assists and four rebounds in 24 minutes. Smart also liked his activity on defense.

"I thought Stevie just did a great job of executing our game plan," Smart said. "Of trying to, as we say, make them feel us. I thought he did that on the defensive end. 

"I don't know how many individual deflections he had, but it had to have been close to double figures. Again, the goal (for the team) is 32, so if you have a guy in there that's getting a lot of deflections, it goes a long way to your goal."

Smart said the Golden Eagles had 44 deflections. But MU was sloppy on offense, committing 20 turnovers.

"I would put the turnovers into a few categories," Smart said. "No. 1, when you play a team that gives a lot of help when you drive the ball, then you have to pass the ball before the help takes the ball from you or deflects the ball. We had several turnovers where the help defender got a hand on a drive or a spin. You have to understand that's going to be there so be strong with the ball or find your teammate.

"And then No. 2, I thought in transition just had some sloppy plays. That we got to do better, we got to clean up better. And then on some of our pick-and-roll actions, we forced some passes that really weren't there. You got to find the right pass, find the right guy."

Marquette forward Olivier-Maxence Prosper defends Northern Illinois forward Zool Kueth in the first half Saturday at Fiserv Forum.

Smart kept trying to find the right combination, with the 11 available scholarship players all seeing more than 10 minutes. With Mitchell leading the way, the MU reserves contributed 35 points. Mitchell was efficient with 4-for-5 shooting and just one turnover.

"I was just taking what the defense was giving me," Mitchell said. "All my teammates were getting me into close-outs, which is something we emphasize. So I was attacking closeouts. Kam (Jones) found me for a wide-open three. TK (Tyler Kolek) found me on a fast break after getting a steal. I took the ball and finished."

Justin Lewis led the Golden Eagles with 15 points and fellow starters Kolek and Darryl Morsell each added 10. Morsell, who came into the game averaging 17.3 points per game, did not score until knocking down two free throws just over a minute into the second half.

A layup from Jones pushed MU's lead to its highest point at 67-45 with 9:32 remaining and it looked like the Golden Eagles would put the hammer down.

But MU had some more sloppy stretches and Northern Illinois cut the deficit to 14 several times down the stretch.

"I'm hard on our guys," Smart said. "I have a high standard for them. I thought that, for whatever reason, we didn't have the same spirit and energy that we had the last time we played here against Illinois.

"Maybe it was the opponent, whatever it was. But that's not acceptable. My job is to help these guys understand we're trying to build a consistent mentality that is regardless of circumstances. That includes the venue, the opponent, the time, the officials, the weather. No matter what else is going on, this is who we are. And we're not there yet, so we're going to keep working."