Thur. Final: Marquette 79, Villanova 72
By Todd Welter
It may be the start of a new year but it was the beginning to the end of a journey for Marquette's heralded senior trio of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, and Dominic James. The seniors kicked off their final Big East campaign combining to score 60 points in Marquette's 79-72 win over No. 15 Villanova in Marquette's Big East opener.
"With all the games we've played, we've been in just about every situation you can think of," McNeal said. "The most important thing is just to keep that poise and keep focusing on what your team does best. That is part of the great thing about playing with Dominic and Wes. Nobody ever gets rattled."
McNeal scored a game-high 24 points. Matthews added 19 points with 16 coming in the second half. Dominic James chipped in 17 as Marquette handed Villanova (12-2, 0-1) just its second loss of the season. It is the third Big East opener those three have won together in their four years at Marquette.
"When you have been through a marathon like the Big East three times and you are entering your fourth, you are not caught off guard by anything," Marquette head coach Buzz Williams explained. "When they came here, they got the ball. They got to learn trial by fire. I think because they have been through the fire and because they have a great skill set, it enhances their specialness."
"We've never started out 2-0 [in the Big East]," Matthews explained. "This is a tough conference. Wins are tough to get by. You have to get every win you can. You have to get every advantage because nothing is promised. Nothing is ever guaranteed."
The Golden Eagles led 36-32 at the half and took an early nine-point lead in the second half thanks to a 7-0 run. Villanova charged back with a 13-3 run to retake the lead with 11:07 left. After going back-and-forth for the next five minutes of the half, Matthews rattled off six straight points and McNeal buried a three with 3:57 left that put the Golden Eagles ahead by eight.
Villanova was unable to mount much of a comeback as it went 4:52 without a field goal down the stretch. Villanova found it a chore just to score in general as it only shot 41% on the game. Corey Fisher was the Wildcats top scorer with 21 points.
"They just controlled the game," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. "Veteran guards win in college basketball if they are big time. Those guys [James, Matthews and McNeal] are big time. Guards like that are going to be very successful in college basketball."
Marquette on the other hand closed out the game with a strong shooting touch. The Golden Eagles made six of their last eight field goals after starting the second half off only making four of their first 14 shots. Marquette also made 16-18 free throws in the second half.
The Golden Eagles shot 46% from the field and 42% from three-point range in the game which is no small feat considering Villanova limits its opponents to shoot 38% from the field and 34% from three. Lazar Hayward also reached double-digits with 15 points.
The Golden Eagles improve to 12-2 on the year and will host Cincinnati on Sunday at the Bradley Center.