Statline: 17 pts, 5 reb, 2 ast, 7-14 FG, 2-2 3FG, 35 min
Quality of opponent: 7/10. If you had asked this directly after the game, the answer would have most likely been 6/10. If you had asked this during the Badgers’ conference season the answer would have been 8/10. With the benefit of hindsight, a seven seems more than fair. This wasn’t the one of Bo’s best squads, and they were struggling a bit coming into the game having gone 3-2 in the previous five games. To make matters worse, senior Mike Bruesewitz was a late scratch, further weakening Wisconsin. Still, this was an eventual NCAA Tournament team that reached the finals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Magnitude of game: 8/10. It was noted that Wisconsin was struggling, but Marquette had problems of its own, coming off the most humiliating defeat in the Buzz Williams era with a 33-point beatdown in Gainesville. Needless to say, the Golden Eagles needed to bounce back big time so as to not dig themselves a hole too big to be overcome during the Big East season. Aside from that, every game against Wisconsin is a big game. This rivalry may not get the national attention of a Duke-North Carolina or Kentucky-Louisville, but the I-90 matchup has been great the past decade. Unlike what Vander Blue said afterwards, this is not just another game, particularly to him, but more on that in a bit.
Rundown: The whole Vander Blue vs. Wisconsin theme may have gotten a bit played out leading up to the third meeting, but it bears repeating that this was not just another Wisconsin baller taking on big bad Bucky. This was a top-30 recruit who de-committed from the Badgers and took (and continues to take) plenty of flack for it. The stakes were huge for the Madison native. He did not disappoint. Vander scored seven of Marquette’s first nine points, hitting on all cylinders. He scored on a runner, a three and a mid-range jumper to whip the BC into a frenzy. That was just the beginning. Vander went on to have the most impressive first half in his career, hitting two dramatic 3-pointers and finishing the game with 17 points and five rebounds.
Key play: Vander Blue wasn’t much of a long-range sniper last season, but the threes he did hit were quite important. Both of his treys in the game qualify for that title. With the ball in his hands and the shot clock reading 2 seconds, Blue had to force up a long three with a man in his face. Nothing but net. That three gave Marquette a 7-0 lead and injected the junior with with supreme confidence. That confidence showed itself throughout the first half, culminating with yet another shot-clock beating trey, this time with the added difficulty of drifting left while shooting. Those two plays epitomized his half in that they may have been a tad lucky, but it was three years of shooting coming to fruition.
Wow factor: I mentioned it twice already but it bears repeating: Vander Blue scored 15 points in the first half against one of the toughest defenses in the country. Wow doesn’t begin to describe his first half explosion. He ended up scoring 15 points in 16 minutes, missing only two shots and grabbing three steals in the process. It’s not fair to say this was his coming out party, as he had played extremely well in the previous two games, but the first half showed it was no fluke. Vander was a different player, one that was finally living up to his lofty rankings out of high school.
Historical precedent: Vander Blue isn’t the only Marquette player to go into beast mode for a half against the Badgers at the Bradley Center. Before him, Jerel McNeal put on a scoring clinic. McNeal’s outburst was a bit different in that it came in the second instead of the first half, but was even more impressive in that he scored 19 points, almost 1/3 of Marquette’s total output, in the final 20 minutes.
Closing time: The Badgers had just trimmed Marquette’s lead to five points with :40 remaining and there was a sense of nervousness in the stands. Never fear, Blue provided his best Aaron Rodgers imitation, launching a perfect 70-foot pass to a streaking Cadougan who got the hoop and the foul off the in-bounds. For as good as his first half was, Vander didn’t have a great second half, but more than made up for it with his spiral to seal the victory.