Marquette storms past St. John’s
Desperate to stop the four-game slide that coincided with Dominic James’ broken left foot, MU did exactly that Wednesday afternoon, riding a smothering defensive effort over the initial 20 minutes to a shockingly easy, 74-45 victory over St. John’s in a second-round Big East tournament game at Madison Square Garden.
The 21st-ranked and fifth-seeded Golden Eagles held the 13th-seeded Red Storm to 13.6 percent shooting (3 for 22) and a tournament-record 10 points in the first half en route to their biggest rout in more than two months.
Wesley Matthews scored 20 points, Lazar Hayward 17 and Jerel McNeal and Jimmy Butler 11 apiece, while Matthews, Hayward and Butler each grabbed nine rebounds to key a 41-22 advantage (17 offensive) on the glass.
MU advances to the quarterfinals, where it will face the 10th-ranked and fourth-seeded Villanova Wildcats (25-6)—a team with which it split the regular-season series — at about 1:20 Thursday afternoon.
“It’s good for us mentally and physically, just to be able to get back in the win column and not have it be such a close, barn-burner type game,” said McNeal. “But it’s definitely going to be a lot different from tonight, as far as tomorrow.”
Helping the Golden Eagles (24-8) should be the unforeseen rest both McNeal and Matthews were able to steal.
McNeal played just nine minutes in the first half after picking up a couple of quick early fouls and just 26 minutes altogether. It was the shortest outing for McNeal—who played every minute in MU’s previous five games—since he played 25 before fouling out Dec. 16 against Tennessee .
Matthews, meanwhile, played 31 after playing all but one minute in the previous four games.
Considering the Wildcats scored 102 points and shot 72.0 percent in the second half in the teams’ meeting Feb. 10 at Villanova, fresh legs figure to be key in MU’s bid to get back on defense in transition.
“I think it was important,” said coach Buzz Williams. “Obviously I wish Jerel wouldn’t have gotten most of his rest from foul trouble, because that doesn’t give us our best chance for success.”
Added McNeal: “I think it’s a situation where we’ll find out tomorrow how much it helped me out, if anything. If you get me out there tomorrow and I look tired, that just lets me know that it still didn’t work.”
MU, which led from buzzer to buzzer, was never in danger against St. John’s (16-17).
The Golden Eagles surrendered just one field goal in the first 10 minutes 53 seconds in opening a 15-6 lead. Even more impressive was the fact they were able to build on their advantage after McNeal went to the bench at the 10:06 mark after picking up his second foul.
All told, MU outscored St. John’s, 14-2, with its leading scorer on the bench. Matthews picked up the slack with his running mate out, scoring six points, while Hayward added four on a couple of putbacks.
Even junior guard David Cubillan got in on the act, knocking down a runner for his first field goal since Dec. 28.
The bulge grew to 31-8 before a baseline jumper by Justin Harrell finally got the Red Storm into double digits, prompting a sarcastic cheer from the few hundred St. John’s fans who appeared to be in the building.
Williams brought McNeal back briefly late in the half, but his stint didn’t last long as Matthews and Hayward, along with Cubillan, Butler and Acker were able to hold the fort.
“We’re not the same team when Jerel’s not playing, and that’s the first time in a long time that he picked up two fouls that early,” Williams said. “Cubillan was big for us the last 10 minutes of the half, and all the other guys were able to step up and play around him.”
The Golden Eagles went into halftime with a 38-10 lead. The 10 points were the fewest scored by a team in a half of play at the tournament. The previous low was 14 by Georgetown in a loss to Seton Hall in 2001.
MU led by as many as 38 points in the second half before Williams called off the dogs, with every Golden Eagles player except Pat Hazel seeing action in a game that had to have quelled the doubts of some who didn’t believe the team could function at a high level — and win—without James running the show.
“It feels good,” said Matthews. “We were never down on ourselves as a team with the four straight losses because in three of them, we were up. We had two great practices focusing on defense and really showed it, and it just feels good for the work to pay off.”