In case anyone needed more reassurance, Vander Blue proved Saturday night against Butler that his transformation to clutch scorer is complete.
After two seasons of disappointing fans’ expectations, Blue is now the Golden Eagles go-to-scorer. The junior guard, who shot a combined 40.5 percent from the field in his first two seasons at Marquette, is a different player.
He has gone from a good defensive player to a high energy player to a solid role player to The Man.
“I love coaching guys that are hard-knock guys, and I really like coaching guys whose fire burns like his; who, for the first 18 months of his career, was criticized at an all-time high because he didn’t meet expectations, because that just builds a big edge, and you’re coaching him with shoulder pads every day,” head coach Buzz Williams said after Marquette’s thrilling win over Butler.
In three of Marquette’s last four games, Blue has come up with a huge shot late and has been the star of the show. Against St. John’s, he hit a lay-up at the buzzer to clinch a share of the Big East regular season championship. On Thursday, he did the same against Davidson, this time to advance his team to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
Against Butler, Blue’s clutch play could be defined by just one shot – his game-tying three with 1:29 left in the game.
But his second half performance was one to remember.
Blue was 7 of 11 from the field after halftime, making all three of his 3-point attempts. He scored 19 points in the last 20 minutes. In the first six minutes of the second half, Blue had 12 points. After he scored the final two of that stretch from the free throw line, Marquette was only down one after an eight-point halftime deficit.
For all the criticism Blue has faced and the changes he has had to make in his game, he thrives when his back is against the wall.
“These are the games we’re built for: this type of environment, everything is against us,” Blue said. “We just always find ways to pull it out and just show our heart and togetherness, because it’s not about individual on this team, it’s about fighting for the next person.”
In Marquette’s first meeting against Butler, Blue scored 21 points and showed signs of becoming the Golden Eagles’ offensive leader. After another impressive performance against the Bulldogs, he drew the praise of head coach Brad Stevens, who admitted he’s always been an admirer of Blue.
“He’s had 50 in two games on us,” Stevens said. “Pretty unique. Not many guys have gotten 50 against Butler in two games.”
“Just a hard guy to stop. I was fortunate enough to be his court coach when he tried out for the 18-and-under (U.S. Team) a few years back and made the team, and I really like him then and I think he’s a really good player.”
Last season Blue’s offensive game was at its best when he was able to get in a groove and score in bunches. Confidence was, and still is, key for his game.
So when Blue gets on a streak like he did to start the second half, he’s not easy to stop. The junior hit a 3-pointer with 15:27 left that hit the back of the rim, went straight up in the air, and fell straight in.
If a shot like that went in, imagine when he really starts to feel it.
“It was hard for me to see the one bounce up and essentially go in, because I knew a player like that, when he sees that ball go in, that’s as good as two makes,” Stevens said.
There were plenty of baskets for Blue in the second half. He could tell he was in one an impressive groove right after play resumed after halftime.
“I got in the groove early in the second half, so I was able to get it going with my teammates finding me taking shots I take every day,” Blue said.
It helps playing in so many close games like the Golden Eagles have this year. Someway, somehow they have learned how to win close games. Blue is an expert at pulling Marquette to victory late in games, especially in March.
After his buzzer-beater against Davidson on Thursday, Blue said he hit the shot because he knew the Golden Eagles weren’t ready to have their season end. His sentiments were similar after his big second half performance against Butler.
“This is big. I know everybody on our team, we weren’t ready to go home,” Blue said. “We had two close games. We played in a lot of those games this year. I feel like what we’ve done earlier this season has prepared us for what we went through this past weekend.”
When asked about his 3-pointer to tie the game at 69 in the second half, Blue admitted he thought it was a broken play. He saw point guard Junior Cadougan drive and pass him the ball, and the rest was natural.
“I don’t think it was a play,” Blue said. “I think Junior just thought he could beat his man and they came and helped him, so we practice every day. I rose up, saw my man being flat. I rose up and shot it with no conscience because I knew we needed what I had.”
If he doesn’t even have to think about anything when he scores, then it is official: Vander Blue has become an offensive force and the start of a Marquette team headed to its third straight Sweet 16 appearance.