Defense lifts No. 10 Marquette over Seton Hall

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McClatchy Tribune
February 18, 2009
— On a Tuesday night that featured a faceoff between two of the Big East’s three top scorers—Marquette University’s Jerel McNeal and Seton Hall’s Jeremy Hazell—it was defense, not offense, that wound up taking center stage.

Forcing the Pirates into a season-high 23 turnovers and holding them without a basket for 9 minutes 10 seconds in the second half, the Golden Eagles were able to overcome a spotty first half with a terrific second for a 79-67 victory over the Pirates at the Bradley Center.

Wesley Matthews provided the offense with a game-high 24 points, becoming the first player other than McNeal to lead Marquette in scoring in the past 10 games. The 10th-ranked Golden Eagles (22-4, 11-2) won their 17th consecutive home game and kept pace with second-place Pittsburgh in the league standings.

Lazar Hayward added 14 points and Dominic James and McNeal 13 apiece as all three suffered through forgettable shooting nights.

But the struggles didn’t affect James or McNeal, in particular, as they set the tone on defense with seven and five steals, respectively, hounding Seton Hall’s guards from baseline to baseline for nearly 40 minutes.

Marquette finished with 16 steals, a season high, as its recent focus on defense in practice continues to pay dividends.

“I thought in the second half we were as good as we may have possibly been all year long defensively,” coach Buzz Williams said. “I thought the first 16 minutes 12 seconds (of the second half) was the core of what we have to be in order for us to have a chance for success.

“I thought our guys were competing at an extremely high level on both ends of the floor.”

The Golden Eagles rallied from a 37-34 halftime deficit with a 16-3 run over the first 4:49 of the second half to take a 50-40 lead.

Matthews scored six and McNeal five in the surge, with Matthews’ fast-break dunk off a Pirates turnover at the 15:11 mark forcing Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez to call a timeout.

“We knew they were going to make a run,” Gonzalez said. “I warned them at halftime, but I think it came a little quicker than our guys expected.”

A layup by Jordan Theodore stemmed the flow momentarily. But things began deteriorating rapidly for the Pirates on the ensuing possession, when Hayward was fouled on a drive to the basket.

The foul appeared to have been committed by Robert Mitchell but instead was whistled on John Garcia, who had just been inserted back into the game. The foul was Garcia’s fifth, sending him to the bench and leaving the Pirates without their best big man.

Hazell protested the call and was hit with a technical, as was Gonzalez in the aftermath of Hazell’s. That prompted a break in the action for several minutes as the officials sorted everything out.

Marquette then made five of six free throws to take a 55-42 lead, got into the bonus with 14:24 to go and, for all intents and purposes, dealt Seton Hall a knockout blow.

“I’ve got to see the film,” Gonzalez said. “I still don’t understand what happened there. I don’t know how I got a technical, I don’t know if Robert Mitchell fouled and they gave it to John. I don’t know.”

Matthews knocked down three of the four free throws coming from the technicals, becoming Marquette’s all-time leader in made free throws. Then, 24 seconds later, McNeal became Marquette’s all-time steals leader, passing Michael Wilson.

McNeal finished the game with five steals—the third consecutive game he’s done so—and 274 overall.

“It feels good,” said Matthews, who passed Dean Meminger and now has 496 makes overall. “I feel like I’ve been in a little slump lately—I still missed three tonight—but it’s a great feeling. That’s a lot of points off the charity stripe.”

There were three technical fouls called in all in the second half; Williams was hit with one with 16:50 left, but Hazell missed both free throws.

“I said ’Foul,’ “ said Williams, who has been hit with two technicals on the season. “I need to do a better job of handling my emotions. I’m going to fight until the very end for those guys.”

A letup over the final 4 minutes allowed Seton Hall to make the final score respectable, and Hazell finish just above his average with 23 points to lead the Pirates.

James added eight assists, six rebounds and four blocked shots, and also moved past Butch Lee and into third place on MU’s all-time scoring list with 1,740 points.

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