Marquette knew a win over No. 16 Pittsburgh would have implications.
It moved the Golden Eagles into a tie for first place in the Big East with Georgetown. It meant a sweep of its toughest mirror opponent, and it meant a 1.5-game lead over the Panthers and Notre Dame for the fourth spot and double-bye in the Big East.
But past the numbers, the standings and rankings, Marquette’s 79-69 win showed that the Golden Eagles are acting and playing like a team that can contend for a Big East championship.
Against one of the top defensive groups in the country – the Panthers had allowed 55 points per game in their last eight games (7-1) – the Golden Eagles put on their best offensive performance to date. Marquette scored 79 points – which marked just the second time in regulation the Panthers had allowed 70 or more – on better than 56 percent shooting. They made 22-of-29 free throws, including their first 10, and out-rebounded the lengthy Panthers, 33-24.
“For our guys to have executed the way they did, very thankful for the win,” Williams said. “29 days until Selection Sunday.”
But the score didn’t do Marquette’s effort justice. A 10-2 run midway through the first half gave Marquette a 28-18 lead, and after Pittsburgh responded with a 7-0 run of its own the Golden Eagles closed the first half on a 14-4 run. A free throw by Todd Mayo during that stretch made it 37-27, and the Panthers failed to pull within single-digits until a Durand Johnson tip-in made it 78-69 with 39 seconds left.
Buzz Williams’ “leading scorer by committee” theory didn’t apply, considering four players scored in double-figures. Vander Blue (19 points), Davante Gardner (14), Jamil Wilson (13) and Trent Lockett accounted for 57 of Marquette’s points, shooting a blistering 59 percent combined. The Golden Eagles split through the Panthers’ 2-3 zone with ease, connecting on jumpers while also scoring 24 points in the paint.
In its biggest game of the season to date, and likely the biggest one going forward (for standings purposes), Marquette put on its most impressive performance in conference play. For weeks the Golden Eagles hovered around the top of the Big East standings, but a home-heavy front of the schedule and ranked opponents awaiting in mid-February left doubters, Buzz Williams included.
Its resume was fine and its NCAA Tournament hopes were never in doubt, but barely sliding past Connecticut and Georgetown at home and needing overtime (and no Tray Woodall) to win at Pittsburgh didn’t scream “contender.” Just last week ESPN polled 20 of its college basketball analysts, and not one chose Marquette to win the Big East.
After a thrashing of the Big East’s hottest team, which had previously won seven of eight? Marquette’s a contender.
“A lot of people doubted me and my team,” Blue said. “And we’re starting to prove people wrong.”
Saturday’s tilt became even more important when Notre Dame (8-5) fell at Providence. Now 1.5 games ahead of the Irish, the Golden Eagles have some breathing room on the highly-coveted top-4 seed in the Big East Tournament. In two weeks they’ll get the chance to beat the Irish and, now with the tie-breaker over Pittsburgh, all but wrap up a double-bye when they get to New York City for the Big East Tournament.
That’s assuming, of course, the Golden Eagles take care of business elsewhere. In this whacky Big East season that currently has the top seven teams separated by two games, anything can happen, and Marquette knows that.
“Obviously yes,” Blue, when asked about whether the team is thinking Big East title, said. “But there’s no telling in this league. You can’t think that far, especially with teams like Syracuse, Louisville, us, teams like that, you can’t think that far ahead. We start thinking that far ahead that’s when we get behind. We just want to make sure we enjoy the win today.”
Buzz Williams – perhaps now the leading candidate for Big East Coach of the Year – has his team locked in, but consider that Vander Blue already knew about Notre Dame’s loss to Providence by the time he gave his post-game press conference about 30 minutes after the game.
“I want to be really excited and I want to be excited in the locker room,” Williams said. “I can’t, because then I won’t work tomorrow. And if we don’t work tomorrow and if we don’t find a way to beat Seton Hall, then we lost the impact of what this positive work was.”
They may not admit to scoreboard watching, but a 9-3 record on Feb. 15 will allow such action. The team’s “March focus” and mentality has shifted away from hanging around the top tier of the Big East.
The Golden Eagles want to be on top and they want to stay on top.