Kolek, Marquette get 'serious' on way to Sweet 16

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INDIANAPOLIS — Marquette guard Tyler Kolek was determined to wake the program up from its prolonged March slumber.

The Golden Eagles hadn’t made it out of the first weekend of the men’s NCAA tournament since 2013. Kolek was determined to change that, and delivered in an 81-77 win over Colorado on Sunday.

The senior had 21 points and 11 assists against the No. 10-seeded Buffaloes — his second double-double in as many games during this tournament — and helped No. 2 seed Marquette punch its ticket for Dallas, where it will meet NC State on Friday.

For this group of players, Kolek said Sunday’s win at Gainbridge Fieldhouse was a “long time coming,” adding that “coming back this year we had a vengeance. I told the guys before the game, ‘This moment has been in our nightmares and we’re not running from it anymore.'”

In his second game since returning from an oblique injury that had kept him out since Feb. 28, Kolek played all but 26 seconds of Sunday’s win over Colorado (26-11). During one stretch in the second half, he scored or assisted on four straight possessions when Marquette (27-9) suddenly found itself trailing.

The Golden Eagles led 45-34 at halftime as Colorado struggled to knock down 3-pointers. But after the Buffaloes found their form in the second half, including three buckets from junior guard KJ Simpson, Colorado took a 55-54 lead.

Kolek immediately responded with back-to-back buckets that gave Marquette the lead again. His performance also steadied the Golden Eagles as junior guard Kam Jones battled foul trouble for the entire second half.

Kolek, who led the NCAA in assists per game during the regular season, said the offense ran through him a bit more than usual. And when he found open teammates, they knocked down their shots and kept Colorado from making its first Sweet 16 appearance since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle said keeping Kolek off his preferred left hand was a point of emphasis for its defense. He still managed to go 4-for-4 in the first half when driving to his left, Boyle said.

“You appreciate him on film, then you appreciate him with his numbers,” Boyle said. “But then you play against him, and you’re like, ‘Holy cow, that kid is special.’ He’s a good player.”

Simpson, who Boyle said deserved the same accolades as Kolek, had 20 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds. Simpson was the one who hit the game winner against 7-seed Florida on Friday to put Colorado in Sunday’s second-round game.

Jones added 18 points for Marquette, with 16 coming in the first half, and junior forward David Joplin scored 14 to send Marquette and coach Shaka Smart to the next round in Dallas.

This will mark Smart’s first Sweet 16 appearance since he led Virginia Commonwealth to the Final Four in 2011.

Any joy he felt after the game, he said, was because of how this year’s Marquette squad battled together through key injuries, including the one to Kolek.

“Relationships is our number one advantage, and that’s just something that we believe in,” Smart said. “I think it won us the game today.”

Kolek kept any smiles to a minimum. Even after the game, when the news conference moderator asked him if he wanted to take his NCAA placard with him, Kolek politely pointed out that he had a similar one bearing his name in the Marquette locker room.

After falling short in previous years, the only thing worth grinning about was making sure the Golden Eagles extended their season for another weekend.

“This isn’t a time to be joking around,” Kolek said. “I’m as serious guy as it is. I like to have fun, but when it comes to crunch time, you’ve got to be serious. It’s win or go home. That’s all it is.”

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