It had to be Vander Blue.
It was the only fitting that he, the player everyone thought was no good his first two seasons, playing for a team his own coach said was “not any good” this season, hit the game-winner as time expired to beat St. John’s to give Marquette a share of the Big East regular season championship.
The junior guard scored 16 points to go with five rebounds in Marquette’s 69-67 victory. He averaged 15.0 points per game in Big East play, shooting 47.1 percent from the field and grabbing 3.8 rebounds.
Blue, who was named to the All-Big East second team today, scored lay-ups on Marquette’s final two possessions, including one while time expired, in overtime.
“We ran the last two plays for (Vander),” head coach Buzz Williams said. “The next to the last timeout that we used, we executed it really well. “Van” was finishing his cut.”
Both times, Blue attacked St. John’s big man Chris Obekpa, who had seven blocks against the Golden Eagles and today was named to the Big East All-Rookie Team.
On the final play of the game, Blue admitted he wasn’t focused on the player guarding him. He was looking at the positioning of Obekpa in the paint.
“I wasn’t watching the man guarding me,” Blue said. “I was watching the big guy down there, the really good shot blocker. I knew he’d be coming because the lay-up before that I had to put it up really high.”
With the team’s struggles and tendency to play close games this season, Blue couldn’t have imagined the Golden Eagles’ season ending in any other way.
“I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way but in overtime with a game-winning shot,” Blue said. “It’s all God’s grace and going at it every single day and not looking too far and taking it a game at a time and a play at a time.”
Last season, Blue shot just 41.3 percent from the field, and didn’t even make it to 40 percent as a freshman. His offensive inconsistency overshadowed his defensive contributions.
When he came to Marquette, fans assumed that a player ranked as a top-40 recruit in the country immediately would be a go-to-guy on both ends of the court. Well, Blue took some time to adjust to the college game.
His skillset wasn’t originally what people expected from a highly ranked recruit. Blue excelled defensively, but clearly wasn’t comfortable handling the ball.
According to Williams, Blue hasn’t increased his offensive production solely because of his physical improvements. There are subtleties to the game that he has grown more accustomed to since joining Marquette that have enabled him to become a better offensive player.
“Unselfishly, if Van could shoot more he would,” Williams said. “But I also think that’s why he’s been much more efficient this year than ever before in his career. He understands time scored and momentum, he understands a good shot and a bad shot, not necessarily a good shot and a bad shot, not necessarily just for him but for our team.”
At the end of Marquette’s game against St. John’s, there was no mention of any of those factors. With the game on the line and the Golden Eagles in need of a basket, Blue was going to have the ball in his hands.
With 49 seconds left in overtime, Blue converted a lay-up that went high off the backboard and in to tie the game. St. John’s couldn’t convert on its next possession, and with Marquette looking unsure of itself on offense the Golden Eagles called timeout.
Williams said there wasn’t even any discussion about who was going to get the ball with 7.4 seconds left in overtime. He knew it was going to be Blue.
With Obekpa’s dominance in the paint, he was a worry for Marquette when drawing up the potential game-winning play. Williams said a screen set by Jamil Wilson gave Blue to smallest of margins to get his lay-up off.
“Jamil down-screened to get Van open, and then Jamil set a brush screen on Davante (Gardner) just in hopes that that half a step when Jamil set the brush screen would get ’12’ half a step behind Van as he came downhill. And literally that’s how Van scored, that half a step.”
In the final stages of the regular season, Williams noted that Blue had stepped up as a leader for the team. It was evident yesterday.
“If he was mic’d up over the last two weeks, he’s probably been the most vocal guy in practice, not on big things but on little things.”
He may be doing the little things well, but Saturday afternoon, in the World’s Most Famous Arena, he stepped up in a big, big way.