As Marquette filed into its locker room at halftime, Buzz Williams was cautiously pleased. His team had turned the ball over just twice, scored 37 points and trailed by just three to a Georgetown team that had shot 52 percent and made five 3-pointers in the first half.
But Williams, ever the perfectionist, had one tweak for his offense.
“The only critique I had to our team at halftime offensively was, ‘Davante is 3 of 3, Chris is 1 of 1, so if we could,’” he said, “’let’s try to get them a touch.’”
Mission accomplished. Gardner scored 18 second-half points, including 11 in the final 7 minutes, to power Marquette to a 75-73 win over Georgetown on Thursdy at the Bradley Center.
It was yet another classic performance from the senior, who muscled his way inside and had his way against a Hoyas defense that battled serious foul trouble most of the night.
Gardner was quietly efficient in the first half, making all three of his field goals and both free throws for eight points and three rebounds. He deferred much of the first half to Jake Thomas’ hot hand, allowing the redshirt senior to go off for 11 points, including a trio of 3-pointers.
Part of that deferring also meant threading the needle through the Hoyas defense with some stellar passing. Williams played Steve Taylor nine minutes in the first half, using Gardner and him in a high-low set against the zone, and twice Gardner found Taylor on the baseline for open buckets. On his third assist, Gardner passed out of the post and found Thomas in the corner for a 3-point make.
That passing may have been the reason why the Hoyas were so apprehensive to double-team Gardner in the post in the second half. Not once did the Hoyas bring over a second defender, and Gardner made them pay.
“Davante…he’s a load. He got going there. I think we allowed him to have too many old-fashioned three-point plays, said Hoyas head coach John Thompson III, referring to the pair of three-point plays Gardner totaled in the second half. “He’s tough. He’s a load. We wanted to start doubling at the end but our guys were a little apprehensive to go, I’m not sure why. But he’s good, he’s good.”
It also helped that a foul-happy officiating crew put Georgetown in foul trouble almost from the start. Hoyas forward Mikael Hopkins picked up two personal fouls in the first 2 minutes of the game, Nate Lubick was limited to 10 minutes after picking up his second foul and reserve forward Moses Ayegba picked up three fouls, too.
Hopkins picked up his third and fourth foul in the first 140 seconds of the second half, Ayegba committed his fourth foul 39 seconds later and fouled out 22 seconds after that, all within the first 3+ minutes out of halftime.
That opened the floodgates for Gardner, who suddenly found himself paired up against seldom used sophomore center Bradley Hayes. Hayes wound up playing 11 minutes after seeing 19 minutes of action all year long. The game plan began as trying to get Gardner more looks, and once the foul trouble became an issue it was even easier.
“That’s usually our plan in any game,” said Jake Thomas, referring to getting Gardner looks inside, “but when we see their big men in foul trouble we’re going to try and exploit that matchup even more. So Davante always does good drawing fouls and it definitely showed in this game.”
The praise didn’t go entirely to Gardner, though. As Williams noted, it’s not as easy as simply finding Gardner in the post and letting him go to work. Knowing Marquette was going to try and exploit the Gardner vs. Hayes matchup made it difficult to get him the ball. That’s where his guards came in.
“I thought our team did a really good job of getting the ball inside,” Williams said. “When everybody watching at home or on TV knows we’re trying to throw it to Davante, it’s not quite as easy as you would think. You don’t just run down there and go, ‘OK, I’m open.’ You’ve got to do some things to get him open, and I thought our guys executed that really well.”
The Golden Eagles may not be on the NCAA Tournament bubble just yet, and they’ll need to have a terrific road trip over the next week to even enter the discussion. Jamil Wilson has proved to be too inconsistent to rely on a nightly basis — he had three points in 26 foul-plagued minutes — and Todd Mayo is likely one year away from being *that* guy.
Though Gardner isn’t a do-it-all player for Marquette — Williams joked that the team calls him “avante” because Gardner plays no “D” — but for an offense that has gone dormant at times, a stellar showing from Marquette’s senior down the stretch, as his collegiate career comes to a close, may be the answer to the Golden Eagles’ problems, even if it’s too late for an NCAA Tournament run.
And it makes sense, considering Gardner’s teammates trust him. They want the ball in his hands down the stretch, knowing he’s going to make something happen. Gardner realizes it, too, and it’s given him the confidence to take the ball and win a game.
“It’s one of the greatest things ever that your teammates believe in you all the time,” Gardner said. “We’ve got to keep fighting to get to where we want to be.”
And Gardner may be the guy to get them there.