If nothing else, the start of the Big East season has been memorable for Marquette, with three lopsided games.
In 2006 it was Steve Novak's heroics that stunned UConn in MU's first Big East game ever.
In 2007, injuries to Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews took their toll as MU was blown out by Providence.
In 2008, Marquette paid back PC, pasting them with a 29 point loss.
The 2009 season began unlike the previous three seasons--with a hard fought contest against two closely matched teams. In the end, Jerel McNeal scored 24 and Wesley Matthews posted 19 as MU held off #13 Villanova Wildcats on Thursday by a final of 79-72.
In a game that saw 10 ties, MU used back-to-back jumpers by Mathews and a 3 pointer by McNeal to pace an 11-2 late run that built a 71-61 lead. Matthews, McNeal and Lazar Hayward then combined for 13 of 14 from the line to seal the victory.
In most games, it is a given that MU has an strong edge in the backcourt. However, conventional wisdom going into the game today was that Villanova's own backcourt of Scottie Reynolds, Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher might be just as good as MU's--and the edge that Villanova had inside with Dante Cunningham over Dwight Burke might be the difference in the game.
Cue Pat Hazel and Jimmy Butler.
While MU's frontcourt reserves may not have posted a lockdown defense on Cunningham, they did keep Villanova from gaining a significant advantage in the paint, combining with Dwight Burke to hold VU's frontcourt to just 20 total points--Antonio Pena was scoreless, and reserve Shane Clark posted just 4 points on top of 16 from Cunningham. The most impressive stat: Butler posted 7 boards (5 offensive) in just fifteen minutes. For the game, Cunningham edged Butler by just one rebound--but he played 35 minutes to reach that milestone.
With the inside game in check, Matthews, McNeal, Hayward and James
proceeded to do what they do best took what the VU defense gave them--which was not much dribble penetration. Instead, MU shot outstandingly well from the 3 point arc (10 of 24), handled Villanova's 2-3 zone without panicking, and looked like a Big East contender during the last eight minutes of the game.
While the strong play (if not stat-stuffing performance) from MU's frontcourt bench was good to see, the slow start and sloppy play by MU guards was not. Villanova raced off to a 6-0 lead, and MU turned the ball over 19 times for the game--13 in the first half.
To the team's credit, MU was solid in the final eight minutes, with just one turnover down the stretch.
If one was looking for a sign that Coach Buzz Williams had changed his view that Chris Otule and Joe Fulce had earned playing time, they wouldn't have seen it today--neither player saw action, despite both getting extended time against Presbyterian last Sunday.
The game was important for MU to gain advantage on the Wildcats in the Big East conference race. In their picks at start of the season, Big East coaches had MU and VU thisclose in projected standings, with VU slightly edging MU for 5th place.
With the win, Marquette looks to go 2-0 in Big East play for the first time since joining the league when they take on Cincinnati on Saturday. The Bearcats should be a bit rusty, not having played since their 60-45 loss to Memphis on Monday evening.
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