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Gutting it out: Marquette holds off stubborn Kouts challenge to advance to Class A semistate final

LAFAYETTE -- It's been a rough week for Lukas Balling.

The Marquette Catholic senior was a no go for practice Tuesday through Thursday due to the stomach flu.

"It was still pretty bad (Friday)," Balling said. "When we practiced here, my stomach was still a little loose, but I woke up (Saturday) feeling good."

It was Kouts that was causing a queasy feeling for the Blazers most of Saturday afternoon at Lafayette Jefferson, where Marquette, like Balling with his flu bug, couldn't quite shake the Mustangs but did enough to get by, 55-50.

"We gutted it out," coach Ray Tarnow said. "It was dicey. It's been dicey the whole tournament. Kouts is a good team. Kevin (Duzan) is obviously a hell of a coach. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot. We've been saying we're going to play our best basketball sometime. It better be the next game or we're going home a sad way."

No. 10 Marquette advanced to face Southwood (14-12), which downed second-ranked Fountain Central 63-57 in the first game at the Marian Crawley Athletic Center.

"We knew it wasn't going to be an easy game. They've been fighting the whole tournament, playing really good," Jason Kobe said of Kouts. "We knew they weren't going to go away. The freshman (Landon Garrett) came in the second half and hit some big shots. We hit just enough shots when we needed to to win."

The game was played within a 10-point window, Kouts leading by no more than two and Marquette leading by as much as eight. It was 45-37 after a Kobe steal and score when Garrett, who didn't play in the first half, banged the first of three 3s to keep the Mustangs kicking.

"The freshman kid had a hell of a second half," Tarnow said. "We had to face guard him. I'm like, wow, OK."

Garrett's second trey made it 47-45 and his third kept it a one-possession game.

"That's what he can do," Duzan said. "That's a glimpse of what the future's going to look like for us. We've got guys who can shoot it, we've just got to find guys who will defend as hard as this group."

Kouts (17-10) had the ball with a chance to tie at 51-48 but Kobe induced a five-second closely-guarded violation just inside the last minute.

"Whenever you pressure them, don't make it easy for them to pass or do anything, it makes them throw bad passes," Kobe said. "You don't pressure them, they have easy passes. You make them rush it, sometimes they throw it away. You've got to take advantage when they do that."

Marquette (21-7) was able to hold the ball until Connor Bakota scored on a contested drive with 12 seconds left to create a two-possession difference.

"I said only a layup, not that kind of a layup, but it went in," Tarnow said. "Lukas got a couple big offensive rebounds. He's not (feeling) good, but he's all right. That's a momentum thing because they were getting downhill. The second half, we hit some shots, cleaned up on defense. Adam hit some shots. At halftime, I drew a little diagram, got to hit your shots right there (at the elbow). Jason came out the second half and hit that. That's what they were giving us. They were giving us wide open 3s. Somebody's got to make some. We got some good stuff inside. If we don't hit jump shots, we're done."

That was Duzan's plan as Kouts played zone most of the game.

"I thought we had a good game plan," he said. "We knew, man-to-man, they would probably go by us. Our zone let it in the middle a little too easy, the high post. We were worried about Balling and other guys on the perimeter. We got spread out a little more than I wanted. When you're playing a team that can get hot, it's tough for kids to stay back and say, try to get hot. I didn't think they hit a ton of 3s like I thought they could because they can pass over the top and they can shoot over the top. We had to try and pick and choose what we were going to take away. We were trying to take away the inside, yet cover shooters, and we just couldn't quite get both of them done at the same time."

Balling and Adam Tarnow both canned three 3s, all of Balling's in the first half.

"Against the zone, you have to knock down some shots," Balling said.

Kouts kept pace early with some transition leakouts that pleasantly surprised Duzan, while raising Tarnow's angst.

"How about we get back on defense the first half? How many runouts are we going to give?" Tarnow said. "Come on, 14 (Gabe Matthes)'s running free. When you give 'em layups, I can do that. They didn't do much different than what we said. I get the moment, whatever, a few foul issues here and there, but the first half, it was God atrocious on defense."

Kouts last led 26-25 at the half and closed the third quarter with six in a row to pull within 35-33 before Marquette's best defensive stretch produced three straight turnovers to start the fourth and create enough separation to hang on.

"Their athleticism in the end made a huge difference," Duzan said. "We couldn't keep Kobe and Balling off the boards. We ran out of shot makers.

Against a half court trap and as physical as they play, I was not disappointed with (our 11 turnovers). I traded my ball handling for scoring at one point and that put some guys handling the ball who might not have been as comfortable. The first half, we took them out of that. They were trying to trap us and we ran by them. The second half, we still ran by them a couple times, we just couldn't consistently get the rebounds. They're good. We battled all day."

Kobe's 18 points, nine rebounds and four steals led Marquette in its 16th consecutive victory. Balling scored 16 and Tarnow nine.

Matthes (13) and Baker (11) reached double figures for Kouts.

"I told these guys in the locker room, you'll forever be a regional champion," Duzan said. "There's only been four of them in Kouts history. I couldn't be prouder of those guys. I know what (going to state) feels like and unfortunately we're on the other side today."

Connor Bakota of Marquette is guarded by Kouts' Colten Hamann as Landon Garrett closes in during Saturday's Class A semistate semifinal at Lafayette Jefferson.

Photo by Bob Johnson

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