Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews regained their strokes. The ball security was there, save for a short spell in the first half. The defense, especially in the halfcourt, was ferocious.
And still, it wasn’t enough.
Done in by an inability to score down the stretch and then some strange circumstances in crunch time, Marquette University’s men’s basketball team lost to Missouri, 83-79, in a second-round NCAA tournament nail-biter Sunday afternoon at Taco Bell Arena that featured the return of Dominic James from a broken left foot.
It was the second heartbreaker in as many second-round games for the sixth-seeded Golden Eagles (25-10). A year ago to the day, they lost to Stanford, 82-81, on Brook Lopez’s crazy behind-the-backboard prayer in the waning seconds in Anaheim, Calif.
“It’s just, like, I don’t know, why us?” junior forward Lazar Hayward said in a somber locker room afterward. “We go through so much stuff during the course of the year. I don’t get it. It’s just a crazy feeling.”
McNeal shared that feeling.
“We weren’t able to go out the way we all wanted to go out,’’ he said. “It’s disappointing. But the guys in this locker room, we just never stop fighting.”
McNeal was superb down the stretch, matching a personal high with 30 points, and Matthews equally great with 24 points and seven rebounds. But neither one could get anything to go over the final 3:31 until McNeal split a pair of free throws with 38.3 seconds left that knotted the score at 79-79.
And that’s when things got strange.
On the ensuing possession, third-seeded Missouri (30-6) brought the ball up court and ran the clock down to 19 seconds before coach Mike Anderson called a timeout to set up a final play. Coming out of the huddle, the Tigers got the ball to defensive specialist J.T. Tiller, who after some dribbling found a clear lane to the basket.
He drove and was hammered near the rim by McNeal. Tiller went down hard and came up holding his right wrist. After some delay, Anderson chose to pull the right-handed Tiller from the game and insert freshman guard Kim English off the bench, as the rules allow, to shoot the free throws.
At first glance, it was a strange tradeoff. Tiller was at 75.9 percent from the line this season and English 68 percent. But English was on fire in the first half, and he delivered again by making both free throws to give the Tigers an 81-79 lead with 5.5 seconds left.
“It was obvious he was hurt,” Anderson said of Tiller.
“Nothing was ever explained to me,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “I had to call a timeout to get an explanation.”
Tiller tried to check back into the game after the free throws but was denied by the officials. It was a move that was soundly booed by most of the 12,184 in attendance, who had slid over to Marquette’s side during its comeback attempt.
Then, on the ensuing inbounds play, Hayward was whistled for stepping over the baseline after he double-clutched when McNeal and Matthews were unable to get open.
“I was trying to get it to Wes or Jerel down there,” Hayward said. “I’ve got to be a lot smarter than that. I’m more intelligent than that. I just didn’t want to throw the ball away, and that’s why I kind of jerked.”
Missouri got the ball back on the turnover, and Marquette immediately fouled Leo Lyons. A 75.3 percent free-throw shooter and 4 for 6 on the day to that point, Lyons calmly made both to put Missouri up by four.
The Golden Eagles inbounded the ball for one last-ditch effort at scoring, but Maurice Acker’s three-point attempt was well short as he appeared to be fouled well beyond the top of the key. There was no whistle, and that was that.
That Marquette was even in that position was remarkable, considering the problems it had early on against the long, athletic Tigers.
The Golden Eagles managed just one field goal over the final 12:23 of the first half—a long three by McNeal at the buzzer—and shot just 34.8 percent to head into intermission trailing 46-35.
Things didn’t get any better for the Golden Eagles to open the second half, either.
Hayward missed three chippies, and after a three-point play by McNeal, Marquette missed five more in a row.
Even when the Golden Eagles seemed to be getting a lift, such as on Matthews’ thundering baseline dunk, the Tigers immediately responded. In this case, Matt Lawrence beat everyone down court for a lay-up to make it 54-42 with 16:22 left.
But a little less than eight minutes later, Marquette had turned the tables on Missouri. Matthews led the way, scoring 10 points in a 19-9 run that pulled the Golden Eagles to within 63-61 at the 9:08 mark.
Taking care of the ball, defending in the half-court and turning those stops into baskets on the other end, Marquette was doing it all. And with a free throw by McNeal with 5:36 left, the Golden Eagles clawed their way back into the lead at 68-67.
They held the advantage until just 48.7 seconds remained, when Lyons grabbed his own miss and was fouled, giving the Tigers a 79-78 lead, and setting the stage for McNeal’s tying free throw.
Although James checked in early, at the 17:08 mark, he really didn’t have much of an impact. McNeal, Matthews and Hayward handled most of the ball-handling, and James was more of a pressure release than anything. He didn’t attempt a shot and played 13 of his 17 minutes in the first half.
“Above all else, I wanted him to finish his career in a uniform,” Williams said. “I wanted him to have closure in regards to his basketball career at Marquette. I thought he did a good job.”
Hayward finished with 13 points and 11 boards, and senior Dwight Burke five points and a personal-high 10 boards for MU, which beat Missouri on the glass, 41-30.
The Golden Eagles also made 28 of 33 free throws (84.8 percent).
Lyons led Missouri with 18 points.