The difference between the two teams on Saturday? Execution.
While Marquette coach Buzz Williams gushed about this team's performance down the stretch, UConn associate head coach George Blaney was frustrated by his team's execution (and, to steal a quote from ex-Tampa Bay Bucs coach John McKay, was probably all for it).
The Golden Eagles executed a couple of plays down the stretch and proved they've grown from some heartbreaking early-season losses. Conversely, the Huskies couldn't do anything right after Jerome Dyson's 3-pointer with 54 seconds remaining and showed once again that they can't get over the hump in crunch time.
Over the final 41 seconds of play, Marquette got fouled on a 3-point attempt and hit all three free throws, ran a play for Jimmy Butler that got him his game-winning runner with 2.8 seconds left, and stole UConn's ensuing inbounds pass.
The Huskies, meanwhile, committed that unnecessary foul with 41 seconds left, air-balled a short lane jumper that was taken too early and couldn't even get a final shot attempt off. Throw in 16 turnovers (against just three by Marquette) and the Huskies really didn't deserve to win this one.
"We made a ton of mistakes," Blaney said. "You're not going to win games doing that."
Marquette's superior execution is born out of its work in practice, Williams explained.
"Every breakdown drill that we have, there's a winner and there's a loser," Williams said. "In order to confirm the win, whichever team had won the breakdown drill, we do a special situation: whether it's a sideout, the length of the floor, baseline or just the halfcourt set. The play that we ran when (Johnson-Odom) got fouled is a play that we often work on in practice. The sidelines out-of-bounds play that we ran and Jimmy made the shot is a play that we work on in practice."
Ironically, the latter play was hardly run to perfection.
"It wasn't spaced appropriately," said Williams. "We did want Jimmy to take the shot and drive it on that side of the floor. He was going to try to drive it to (Johnson-Odom) and let him take it to that side of the floor, then give it back to him. (Jerome Dyson) didn't let (Johnson-Odom) catch it. Jimmy just took it that way and then drove it."
The Golden Eagles have lost by a point to both Florida State and No. 9 West Virginia and by two to No. 3 Villanova – twice, in the span of a week.
"I would say that the close losses have helped, without my voice, explain the importance of every possession," said Peterson.
Peterson also noted: "Our margin is so slim, our game gets turned into a tractor pull. We don't ever think that we're giong to blow anybody out. We prepare and practice as if it's going to be a one or two-possession game. When I grew up, that's like watching the monster truck show."
No idea what Peterson meant by that last sentence, but his point is well-taken and should be heeded by the Huskies, who have lost every close game they've played.
"(We) seem to play in moments, (we) don’t seem to play full possessions," said Blaney, in a familiar refrain. "It's the hardest thing to understand, and it's something we do not have an answer for."
***The anatomy of the final two minutes:
Marquette leading scorer Lazar Hayward (20 points) fouled out with 1:51 left, but Butler hit a pair of free throws at the 1:28 mark to tie it at 65.
Kemba Walker came down and had a runner blocked by Butler, but Walker kicked the loose ball out to Dyson on the perimeter. With the shot clock winding down, Dyson nailed a 25-foot 3-pointer with 54 seconds left on the game clock and just two on the shot clock.
"That should have been the big play for us," said Blaney.
"Then," said Dyson, "I went and (threw) it away by letting the offensive player get me in the air and drawing the foul."
Indeed, with 41 seconds left, Dyson fell for a head fake and fouled Johnson-Odom on a 3-point attempt. Johnson-Odom, a 64-percent foul shooter who had missed his two prior attempts, calmly swished all three freebies.
Blaney called a clear-out for Walker, but the sophomore point guard drove the lane with 21 seconds on the clock and put up an air ball from about eight feet.
"I shot it way too early," Walker confessed. "It was a little miscommunication between me and coach, that was it. I definitely shot too early."
Explained Blaney: "We would have liked it a little bit later. I like to score in that situation, I like to be up. We've been having really good luck with the 'down' play. They were having a lot of trouble guarding that, with both Jerome and Kemba. He got to eight feet, and I don't know if he got hit or what, but it came up short. We still needed to defend at the other end and not give up a runner."
After a pair of Marquette timeouts with 12.6 seconds left, Butler took a sideline inbounds pass from Johnson-Odom, dribbled to the right and hit a tough, fallaway jumper with Gavin Edwards draped all over him and 2.8 seconds left on the clock.
"I could have played him a little better, I think," said Edwards. I probably could have cut him off a little earlier and he wouldn't have gotten any closer to the basket. But …"
"… it was a tough shot. Give congratulations to him on that one."
UConn tried a sideline inbounds pass of its own after a timeout, but Edwards threw it away to Johnson-Odom, and victory was sealed for Marquette (13-8, 4-5 Big East).
"We continue to put ourselves in position where things like what happened, happened," said Blaney, now 2-2 during head coach Jim Calhoun's indefinite medical absence. "It's a result of not playing as well as we should have in the first half and allowing nine and 10-point leads in the second half. To have to play our guts out to where we get the lead and have an opportunity to win the game … again, full possessions, full games. That continues to be something that we're not doing very well."
***One bright spot for UConn was the play of Ater Majok, who posted career highs in points (7) and rebounds (7) and matched a career-best with four blocked shots.
"He was really a factor," Blaney said of the 6-foot-11 freshman, who played 18 minutes. "His length was really good – blocked shots and a lot of alters."
For Majok, however, his strong game rang hollow.
"I contributed, but I contributed to a loss, so it doesn't mean anything," he said with a shrug. "We didn't get a win, at the end of the day. For anything I did to be valued, we didn't get a win, so …"
***Oh, and another thing: if you're feeling down about the Huskies tonight, swing by the Groggy Frogg tonight at about 9:30 p.m. Good little cover band called Dead Flowers will be playing. Worth your while.