Coach Buzz Williams looked on as Todd Mayo began to answer the question.
The freshman had been asked about the road atmosphere at the KFC Yum! Center, where all but one section of Marquette fans had been pulling for the Murray State Racers all Saturday night.
“We knew it was going to be a road game,” Mayo responded. “We pray all the time for God to stand on us. He definitely did today, and we just try to stay together and just try to come out with the win.”
The moment Mayo uttered the words “pray,” Williams became emotional and unsuccessfully attempted to hold back tears.
“It’s got to be about more than winning and losing,” Williams later said, still fighting back tears. “When you see kids grow and mature, especially when all the perspective of who they are is not really who they are, I think that’s special.”
Mayo finished with eight points, including two 3-pointers, and six rebounds in Marquette’s 62-53 win over Murray State, moving to its second straight Sweet 16 appearance. His solid performance came two days after the freshman connected on two key 3-pointers to help Marquette in its win over BYU.
In addition to the offensive output, much of Mayo’s 25 minutes were spent guarding Ohio Valley Player of the Year Isaiah Canaan, who shot just 4-of-17 in the loss. Canaan entered Saturday shooting better than 52 percent from the field in his last six outings, but the combination of Mayo, Junior Cadougan and Vander Blue slowed him down.
“I just tried to do what I do,” Mayo said. “Go after the best player and make a difference on the defensive end.”
Four months ago, a comment such as that one would never have been uttered from Mayo, formerly known to all as “O.J.’s brother.”
As an offensive specialist, Mayo’s game showed plenty of promise in November. The Huntington, West Va. native scored in double figures in six of Marquette’s first nine games. He poured in a team-high 22 points in his first career start against Northern Colorado. His shooting form was impeccable and he showed the confidence of an upperclassman each time he stepped on the court.
But a shooting slump, one he refused to blame on hitting the freshman wall, slowed his offensive numbers, and his fans.
Mayo continued to get minutes, in large part due to his defensive prowess that had continued to improve throughout the year.
“His defense was still awesome,” freshman Derrick Wilson said. “But he was scoring so much at the beginning of the season that when he slowed down as we got into the Big East, people thought he wasn’t playing as well.”
Over Marquette’s final 12 regular season games, Mayo shot 29.5 percent from the field, made 2-of-19 3-pointers and scored in double figures just once. But as his offensive numbers dropped, his defensive focus improved and he became arguably the Golden Eagles’ best perimeter player.
“You need that spark off the bench,” Jae Crowder said. “Todd brings a different defensive mentality and we feed off that when he comes in the game.”
Throughout his shooting struggles, Mayo always said his confidence had not fallen and that he believed in his jump shot. This past weekend in Louisville showed he was right.
“Everybody jumped off the boat when Todd couldn’t make a shot,” Williams said. “When everything’s stacked against you, that’s when your character is revealed, on the biggest stage.”
Williams hinted at the difficult road Mayo has traveled in his life, which he said makes the freshman’s successes all the more special.
“A lot of these kids have never been loved,” Williams said. “And when you’ve never been loved and you’re 20 years old, and somebody tries to love you for the first time, you don’t know how to handle it.
“And when you start talking about God for the first time, and when you think about what those kids have been through in the previous 20 years, they’re not sure there is a God.”
Williams did not divulge into past hardships in Mayo’s life, but the raw emotion behind his answers spoke volumes to what he thinks of Mayo’s maturation as a person.
“A kid that all he was when he showed up was O.J. Mayo’s little brother,” Williams said. “Wow, what a story. What a story.”