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Marquette shows growth responding to late runs

Marquette proved Saturday afternoon it may not be over its early season inconsistencies, but did show that it is more than capable of overcoming them as non-conference play winds down and the Big East season awaits.

The good numbers were seen easily in the box score: 84 points, including 32 in the paint, in 73 possessions; 49 percent shooting against a top-80 defense; just one missed free throw in 25 attempts.

But it wasn’t all rosy in Milwaukee on Saturday: 28 fast-break points allowed; 16 turnovers that allowed LSU 20 points; 6-of-22 from beyond the arc.

The eventual 84-80 win over the Tigers (7-2) in Marquette’s second-to-last game before conference season provided a mixed bag in the box score, but past the final numbers was a performance from an experienced group which proved capable of pushing through rough stretches when pressed by an opponent.

The first sign of a group ready to respond to letdowns saw the Golden Eagles race out to a 17-3 lead over the Tigers four minutes in, connecting on 7-of-9 shots to open the game. Johnny Jones’ group was one of the best defenders in the paint, yet Marquette produced a layup line early and scored their 43rd point 25 minutes in. On Wednesday against Green Bay, it took 38 minutes to do so.

After losing a 21-point lead in what was statistically the worst 10-minute stretch of the season (any point of the Green Bay loss included), Marquette found itself tied at 49 just five minutes into the second half.

Junior Cadougan helped bail out a Marquette team that lost a second half lead.

Junior Cadougan helped bail out a Marquette team that lost a second half lead.

But in the back-and-forth affair that saw a 27-6 run LSU followed by an 8-0 Marquette run, then a 9-0 run by LSU which Marquette responded to with nine straight points of its own, Williams’ team witnessed growth in the form of clutch shooting and the ability to close out games.

Before Saturday, Marquette had been tied twice in the second half, against Butler and Green Bay. In Maui, Marquette’s offense went 8-of-14 after a 46-46 tie at the 11-minute mark, but allowed Butler to score on each possession from the 8:15 mark in, culminating in a Rotnei Clarke miracle 3 at the buzzer to win it.

Against Green Bay, the Golden Eagles managed just 16 second half points but surrendered only 10 points in the final 8 minutes, 50 seconds. The offense struggled to say the very least, but they did what they needed to do in the rut by locking down defensively.

Saturday was by no means the picture-perfect example of how to close out a game, but Marquette responded a second time to maintain leads after LSU fought back from the aforementioned run and, at one point, even held a one-point lead.

Marquette’s first run — following the 27-6 run which tied the score — included eight straight points and a defensive effort that saw LSU miss six straight shots. It pushed the lead out to 57-49, yet the Tigers were right back in it to take the lead, 58-49, after a 9-0 run.

But unlike Butler and Green Bay, Marquette did just enough to stay ahead. A 9-0 run on the heels of Vander Blue and Jamil Wilson clutch 3-pointers and a Cadougan jumper eventually was dwindled to four, 76-72, with 1:47 to play, but Davante Gardner’s layup and subsequent four free throw makes down the stretch helped put the game out of reach. Marquette never put LSU in a position to win the game like it did against Green Bay (dreadful shooting, turnovers) and Butler (missed free throws). Small improvements are still improvements.

It’s only a small triumph, beating an LSU team picked to finish in the lower half of the SEC by four points at home, but little-by-little Marquette is growing.

Leadership doesn’t just happen as soon as players reach upper class status, as Buzz Williams has always been quick to point out in preseason interviews. Even Jae Crowder needed a few games into the Big East season, roughly 15 contests, to find the consistency that would make him the eventual player of the year.

Marquette won’t have any players fighting for that title this year, but an experienced group led by seniors Trent Lockett and Cadougan, fourth-year junior Jamil Wilson and juniors Blue and Gardner have had the game experience, just not as the players expected to perform down the stretch.

Cadougan, who appears to be the “leader” despite Williams’ hesitancy to automatically dub a senior the chief, said Marquette settled down and regrouped after each LSU run because they needed to.

“You just have to be mentally tough to maintain,” he said. “If we go on an 8-0 run and they come back and go on a 9-0 run, we can’t get down and hang our heads. We’ve got to stay focused and take it one media timeout at a time.”

Marquette still has question marks, and a bend-but-don’t-break mentality might be best-case scenarios on some nights. But Saturday afternoon was a case where Marquette, with its backs against the wall, did what it needed to do, when it needed to do it, to secure a win.

It’s a small victory in a mixed bag of goods and bads, but a victory nonetheless.

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