Marquette exits Big East tournament
No other word could adequately describe what the Marquette Golden Eagles felt as they watched Dwayne Anderson’s layup roll around the rim and finally drop through the net as the buzzer sounded Thursday afternoon.
After all the effort they’d expended clawing out of the hole they’d dug for themselves—actually holding the lead on the game’s final possession—the outcome was almost too much for them to swallow.
But swallow it they must, a 76-75 loss to the Villanova Wildcats in the Big East tournament quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.
It sends them into Selection Sunday not only on a decidedly down note but also having dropped seven of their last 11 games—six of them without the injured Dominic James—as they hope the NCAA tournament selection committee still looks kindly upon them when the discussion turns to seeding.
“It sucks,” Wesley Matthews said. “We’re supposed to be getting ready to play Louisville right now. We’re not. Wasn’t in God’s plan. We’ve just got to learn from it, keep fighting and get ready to get this taste out of our mouth.”
Fifth-seeded and 21st-ranked MU (24-9) went on a 17-7 run to take a 75-74 lead with 1 minute 40 seconds left. The run, which began with Matthews’ first field goal with 7:04 left and ended with Lazar Hayward’s three-pointer from the top of the key, gave the Golden Eagles their first lead since the 15:23 mark of the first half.
Fourth-seeded and 10th-ranked Villanova (26-6) and MU twice traded empty possessions from there, with MU’s final shot, a drive by Jerel McNeal, being partially blocked by Dante Cunningham with 13 seconds left.
McNeal was sent sprawling but heard no whistle. Shane Clark rebounded and the Wildcats headed upcourt for the final shot, one made tougher because Villanova coach Jay Wright had no more timeouts left to try to set something up.
“We wanted to make sure we took it as low in the shot clock as we could while still giving ourselves a chance for a great look,” MU coach Buzz Williams said of McNeal’s final shot.
“Lazar set a flat ball screen, Wes was coming off the stagger from the opposite corner. Yeah, that was our intention, to get something going toward the basket.”
The Wildcats looked out of sorts as Reggie Redding dribbled around at the top of the key. The Golden Eagles pressured him at every turn while also not allowing Scottie Reynolds (21 points) room to breathe, let alone space to catch a pass and get off a shot.
With time winding down, Redding worked his way into the lane and found Anderson alone on the baseline. He dumped the ball to the waiting senior forward, who went up and scored as time expired.
“I thought we guarded the ball, and then we call it ‘help uphill,’” Williams said. “Dribble penetration, I don’t even remember who it was. We stepped uphill to help on penetration, they went behind us. I think they scored five baskets on that throughout the game.”
The play, which occurred on Villanova’s side of the floor, sparked a huge celebration among Wildcats players. The Golden Eagles could only watch in disbelief.
The officials checked a replay to make sure the shot was released with time on the clock, but that took less than a minute.
Game, set, match.
“I don’t really know if there’s a word for it,” Matthews said when asked to describe the feeling. “I mean, they really had no idea what was going on. They were just trying to push and hope for something to happen, and we let it happen.
“We gave it up, and they took advantage.”
The Golden Eagles overcame their 20.8 percent first-half shooting by knocking down 19 of 23 free throws to at least keep themselves within striking distance of the Wildcats at halftime, 47-31.
A 13-4 run right out of the locker room to open the second half narrowed the gap to 51-44 with 15:14 left. The Golden Eagles then withstood a stretch that saw Corey Stokes score 13 of Villanova’s next 15 points to leave the Wildcats ahead, 67-58, with 7:57 left.
That’s when Matthews’ drive sparked MU’s 17-7 run.
Jimmy Butler came off the bench with another standout performance, scoring 19 points to become the first player other than McNeal, Matthews or Hayward to lead the team in scoring.
McNeal had 15 points, Hayward added 13 points and 10 rebounds, Matthews had 11 points and Maurice Acker added 12 for MU, which was 33 for 39 from the free-throw line (84.6 percent), 16 for 48 from the field (33.3 percent) and 10 for 25 from three-point range (40.0 percent).
Stokes added 20 points for Villanova, and Anderson, the hero, finished with four.
And now the waiting game begins for the Golden Eagles. As recently as three weeks ago they were considered headed for a potential third or fourth seeding in the NCAA tournament but now might be looking at something around a seventh seeding. That would mean facing a much tougher opponent in the first round.
“We really don’t care,” Matthews said. “We’re just thankful to be able to play again. Not a lot of teams can say that.”