CHARLESTON, S.C. – The Marquette men’s basketball team is more than likely not going to go undefeated under new head coach Shaka Smart.
But the way the Golden Eagles are playing early in the season, it’s not crazy to wonder what this team is capable of accomplishing.
MU rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit and beat a veteran-laden West Virginia, 82-71, on Friday to reach the finals of the Charleston Classic.
The Golden Eagles (5-0) will play No. 22 St. Bonaventure (4-0) in the title game Sunday.
BOX SCORE: Marquette 82, West Virginia 71
“I think it’s our players deciding to play for each other,” Smart said. “And try to follow the plan. Whether it’s focusing on the response when things don’t go well. Whether it’s being lost in the fight.
“And that is not a given. That’s one of the biggest things that people that don’t play and coach don’t always understand. (Former NBA coach) Phil Jackson said ‘Teamwork is an ephemeral thing.’ It comes and it goes. For the guys to make it intentional and make it a huge point of emphasis, I give them a ton of credit.”
MU was down, 47-33, after the Mountaineers (3-1) ripped off a 9-0 run late in the first half. But Kolek hit a floater in the paint to stop the bleeding before the break.
Center Kur Kuath picked up his second foul just under six minutes into the game and the Golden Eagles missed the 6-foot-10 graduate transfer’s rim protection.
West Virginia was able to get comfortable looks, finishing 18 for 31 (58.1%) in the opening 20 minutes with Taz Sherman scoring 14 points.
“It was unacceptable what we were doing on the defensive end in the first half,” Kolek said. “Myself included. I mean, they scored the first 10 points on me. So I had to really buckle down and guard in the second half and that’s what we did.”
Kolek was also able to get going offensively. He has been a strong distributor, but came into the game mired in a shooting slump. He was 9 for 30, including 3 for 15, on threes over the first four games. He missed his first three shots against West Virginia but made his next three.
He finished with 18 points, one short of his collegiate high set last season with George Mason, on 7-for-12 shooting.
“We’re just a bunch of gritty guys,” Kolek said. “That’s the theme of the weekend. We came down here to win this thing.”
Kolek hit a three-pointer when MU scored 13 unanswered points early in the second half. Justin Lewis (17 points) capped the run with a triple that gave the Golden Eagles a 55-54 lead.
“First of all we got two kills (three straight defensive stops) early in the second half,” Smart said. “And so it started on the defensive end, just making them miss.
“But we were fortunate, they missed some shots they made in the first half. But our guys did a good job rebounding those balls. And guys playing with no fear on offense. It seems like when we go on runs, it’s a combination of getting stops and then us making threes.”
The Golden Eagles also got a huge lift from Kam Jones, who scored all 12 of his points in the second half, making 4 of 5 three-pointers in the final 20 minutes. Jones was coming off a breakout game on Thursday when he had 18 against Mississippi.
“I just try to bring energy coming off the bench,” Jones said. “Just bring more energy and lift the people that are on the court up. That’s really my mind-set going into the game.”
Jones and Kolek helped carry MU’s offense when its leading scorer Darryl Morsell was held to 11 points. He had scored 21 or more in each of the Golden Eagles’ first four games.
MU’s Greg Elliott, who was suspended for the first four games for a violation of team rules, made his season debut. He played almost 12 minutes, missing both his shots but sinking 1 of 2 free throws. He had a big hustle play late in the second half, diving on the floor for a loose ball and a tie-up that gave MU possession.
Sherman hit three free throws to get West Virginia within 76-71, but MU went 6 for 6 on free throws in the final minute, with four coming from Morsell.
With another comeback victory in hand, MU fans started singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” a West Virginia staple. It was also a callback to the last time the former Big East opponents met, on Feb. 24, 2012, when former Golden Eagles head coach Buzz Williams danced a slow jig to the song after a 61-60 victory that enraged Mountaineers fans in Morgantown, West Virginia.
“They say neutral floor,” Kolek said. “But it was probably 75% West Virginia fans. Once we went on that run, our fans kind of took over and their fans got quiet. I loved it when they were singing at the end. I got into it a little bit. It was fun.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marquette Golden Eagles beat West Virginia to reach Charleston Classic title game