The final night of the Big East Tournament never sounded like this before.
Tyler Kolek and No. 6 Marquette raced out to a hefty lead and didn’t look back, beating No. 15 Xavier 65-51 on Saturday at Madison Square Garden to win its first Big East championship after 18 seasons in the conference.
As the clock wound down on an historic victory by a storied program that had been longing for an elusive title, chants of “We are, Mar-quette!” echoed through Madison Square Garden.
“Marquette is a special place that has had a special basketball program for a long, long time,” coach Shaka Smart said as he accepted the trophy. “We’re so proud to bring a championship back to Milwaukee.”
Kolek had 20 points and eight rebounds as the top-seeded Golden Eagles (28-6) dominated a Big East final that brought a Midwestern flavor to Midtown Manhattan.
The brash Big East player of the year, who vowed his team would prove doubters wrong before the season, shared hugs with his family and friends as confetti poured down on the Golden Eagles after the game.
“All the moments they’ve been through with me have led up to this moment right here,” Kolek said. “To share that with my high school coach, my brother, my dad, my two best friends, it’s special. There is no better feeling.”
Smart’s surprising team will head into the NCAA Tournament with a nine-game winning streak. Marquette’s first appearance in the Big East championship game resulted in one of its best performances of a scintillating season.
Kolek’s steal and layup made it 51-27 with 14:12 left. Less than a minute later, after two offensive rebounds by the Golden Eagles, David Joplin made a corner 3 to double up second-seeded Xavier (25-9).
Joplin finished with 12 points. Kolek was selected the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Adam Kunkel scored 12 points to lead the Musketeers, who had a five-game winning streak snapped. Leading scorer Souley Boum was held to one point on 0-for-9 shooting.
“I thought tonight there are times when their effort level and their quickness, their togetherness, their communication, it was like there were six players on defense against us,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “We couldn’t get a good shot, and that is to their credit.”
Smart described his team’s defense as “violent.”
“Coming up here to New York, we’ve really played for the most part very, very sticky, tough defense,” Smart said. “We’re going to need that if we want to advance in the NCAA Tournament.”
This was the first Big East title game since the conference dropped football in 2013 to not feature any of its longstanding Northeast members.
Still, the Milwaukee school, which joined in 2005, and the Cincinnati school, which joined in 2013, filled The Garden for the first 1 vs. 2 seed Big East Tournament final in 19 years.
It looked more like a 1-16 NCAA Tournament game for a while.
Marquette jumped out to a 21-4 lead, and never relented.
“It was huge,” Smart said. “And our guys played with real force to start the game.”
During a particularly splendid 2 1/2 minutes, Stevie Mitchell swished a corner 3, Kolek came off a screen to make another 3, Kam Jones got free for a reverse layup after a nifty hesitation move on the baseline and Kolek converted a layup off a give-and-go with Oso Ighodaro.
At that point, Marquette was up 33-10 with 7:02 left in the first half and the Golden Eagles had not yet committed a turnover.
Marquette’s only previous league tournament title was as a member of Conference USA in 1997.
Twenty-six years later, the Golden Eagles were able to clear the bench in the final minute of the Big East championship and their fans were finally able to make The Garden feel like home.
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