On a night when the ghosts of Marquette past hovered around the capacity crowd at the Bradley Center, the Golden Eagles spoiled the Pittsburgh Panthers' shot at a Big East co-championship with Georgetown. David Cubillan put up a career-high 20 points to lead the No. 20-ranked Golden Eagles (23-8, 10-6 Big East) over No. 12 Pittsburgh (25-6, 12-4 Big East) 75-71 in front of the 1977 Marquette NCAA champions, who were honored at halftime. Butch Lee and the gang could not be happier that the night turned out the way it did — which solidified MU as the #6 seed and facing #11-seed St. John's in the first round of the Big East tournament on Wednesday night at 9:00 EST on ESPN.
The game was played at a frenetic pace from the start as it is with all MU games — but this one was different. Jerel McNeal hurt his hand/thumb in practice Friday and was unavailable for the game, pushing Lazar Hayward into the starting lineup. It is unknown whether McNeal will be available to coach Tom Crean for the game versus the Red Storm.
The team responded to the sudden adversity, with more to come in the second half, and overcame the missing starter with solid contributions from Cubillan, Hayward and ,Wesley Matthews, who matched Cubillan's 20 points. Dominic James had a career-high 10 assists, and Mike Kinsella came off the bench and went 2-3 from 3-point land after playing only 48 minutes the entire season up to that point.
At the 15:03 mark of the first half, MU trailed Pitt 12-11, but that was when the Golden Eagles started to soar. After the teams traded baskets, Kinsella hit his second 3-pointer of the half, and the MU lead was 2 at 16-14. Marquette was able to push its lead to 22-14 at the 10:50 mark before Sam Young hit a 3-pointer to stop Panthers' bleeding.
But that was only temporary.
With the score 22-19 MU, the Golden Eagles went on another run, pushing the lead to 32-19 at the 5:15 mark of the half. The run was helped by sloppy ball handling from the Panthers, and hot shooting and tenacious D from the Golden Eagles.
Cubillan hit a 3-pointer at the 1:11 mark of the half, and Marquette had its biggest lead at 14. The half ended with MU leading 43-30.
The defensive intensity was what was separating the men from the boys, and Marquette was definitely the former. Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray was ineffective in the half, as was the entire Panther backcourt, due in most part to the aforementioned pressure from Marquette.
Marquette shot 52% from the floor in the first half, while Pittsburgh shot 36%.
James had 7 assists and no turnovers in the half.
Matthews scored at the 19:00 mark of the second half, and then Hayward scored a minute later, and all of a sudden MU was leading by its largest margin of the game at 47-30. It was here that the game also changed its complexion a little. Pittsburgh started to hit some shots, and Marquette started to miss and turn the ball over.
And by the 15:54 mark of the second half, the Panthers had cut the lead to 49-38. Marquette was able to regain a 14-point lead, but it didn't feel as solid as the lead in the first half.
By 6:52 left in the game, MU had a 10-point lead at 59-49, but Pittsburgh was coming back. It was at about this time in the game when James had those pesky cramps show up again — enter Cubillan, stage right.
With the MU star on the bench, and then in the locker room on and off the rest of the game, it was Cubillan who was the difference down the stretch. Whether it was making a clutch 3-pointer or hitting free throws, he did it all for the Golden Eagles over the last seven minutes.
At the same time James was going down, the Panthers were heating up. Their comeback was not fueled by turnovers or bad-shot selection, although MU did go over five minutes in a row without a field goal. Rather, the Panthers heated up from the 3-point line, and Gray had a couple of conventional 3-point plays to eventually bring Pittsburgh within 3 at the :20.4 mark of the half, 72-69.
But Cubillan and Matthews both hit a pair of free throws, and the Panthers could muster only a Gray lay-up with ten seconds left.
Final score: Marquette 75, Pittsburgh 71.
Matthews and Cubillan led Marquette with 20 points each, Ousmane Barro added 10, and James added 8.
Gray led Pittsburgh with 18 points, Mike Cook pitched in 13, and Young added 11.
· Kinsella has proven to be an asset. He can help stretch the defense with his outside shooting, and he can draw the big man guarding him out into the open floor.
· James continues to struggle with his outside shot, as does Dan Fitzgerald. This late in the season, they both need to shoot better for MU to have a chance at a Big East tournament run.
· Speaking of a Big East tournament run, I believe that it may be better to win the first game against St. John's and then lose. A run to the championship game will take more out of the team than it's worth before the NCAA tournament.
· If McNeal can't play in the Big East tournament or the NCAAs, it will be tough sledding for MU.
· With the win over Pittsburgh, I see a #6 seed for Marquette in the NCAA tournament, probably in the West region.
· Matthews is a complete player and may be the best on the MU roster night in, night out.
· Tom Crean has become such a better game coach than he was in the past. Mike Deane used to be better, but now Crean has reached that level and beyond — and he can still recruit circles around anyone in the country.
· Tonight was the 30th anniversary of the 1977 NCAA championship. Long live Coach Al.
Too bad Cincinnati is out of the Big East tournament already — I used to love to hate them, but now they don't exist.