MILWAUKEE (AP)—Just before taking the court for the conference opener against No. 15 Villanova, Marquette coach Buzz Williams gave his players a reminder: Their seniors have never started 2-0 in the Big East.
One down, one to go.
Jerel McNeal scored 24 points, including a critical 3-pointer down the stretch that helped power the Golden Eagles to a 79-72 victory over the Wildcats on Thursday. Marquette (12-2, 1-0 Big East) has another home game Sunday against Cincinnati, giving the Golden Eagles a shot at their first fast start to conference play.
“It’s huge,” Wesley Matthews said. “We’ve never started out 2-0. Buzz had told us that—the last thing he said to us in the locker room. This is a tough conference. Wins are tough to get by.”
Especially against a ranked opponent known for its defense.
“I think they’re one of the better defenses in the country, actually,” McNeal said.
Coming into Thursday’s game, Villanova (12-2, 0-1) was allowing 57.6 points and holding opponents to 37.9 percent shooting from the field. Marquette shot 46 percent on Thursday, including 41.7 percent from 3-point range.
Matthews scored 19 and Dominic James added 17.
“We just played a very good team with great veteran guards,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Those guys are fun to watch, and they just controlled the game. Veteran guards win in college basketball, and those guys were big-time.”
Lazar Hayward added 15, giving the Golden Eagles four double-digit scorers against one of the Big East’s best defensive teams. Hayward has scored 14 points or more in Marquette’s last six games.
Villanova forced 19 turnovers, tying Marquette’s season high.
“Part of that was our fault,” Williams said. “Most of that was because of how good Villanova is, but that’s out of character for us.”
But the Golden Eagles committed only six turnovers in the second half as their offense took over.
McNeal’s 3-pointer with 3:55 remaining capped a 7-0 run by Marquette, giving the Golden Eagles an eight-point lead that Villanova couldn’t chip away in the closing minutes.
With Marquette leading by 1 point and 5:39 left, the decisive run began with a long jumper by Matthews to put Marquette ahead 61-58. Dante Cunningham then was called for traveling under the basket, handing the ball back to the Golden Eagles.
Matthews then drained a long turnaround jumper, pumping his fist as he extended the lead to 63-58.
“He was a little bit quiet up to that point,” McNeal said. “after he got that first shot, and the second one, we knew he was rolling.”
Matthews scored 16 points in the second half, saying he was waiting for the game to come to him.
“It took longer than I thought it would, but it came,” Matthews said.
James then drew a charge on Fisher and McNeal hit a 3-pointer, putting Marquette up 66-58 with 3:55 left.
Villanova later had the ball and was trailing by 7 with just under two minutes left when Hayward grabbed a loose ball in traffic and Matthews hit two free throws on the other end.
The Golden Eagles have struggled with their free throw shooting at times this season, but hit 13 of 14 in the final 2:40 on Thursday.
“It’s just getting up there and knocking them down,” Matthews said.
Corey Fisher scored 21 for the Wildcats, who held each of their first 13 opponents to 68 points or less.
It was the second straight big game for Fisher, who tied his career high of 23 points in Villanova’s win over Temple on Monday. Fisher had scored only 17 in his previous four games.
“I came out tonight being more aggressive, just taking open shots, looking for my teammates,” Fisher said. “I just kept trying to score.”
Cunningham added 16 points and eight rebounds.
“It comes down to getting stops at the end of the game,” Cunningham said. “You’ve got to know where the other person is going, or they are going to score on you. You have to get stops, you have to be tough.”
Villanova struggled from outside, hitting only 6 of 20 from 3-point range.
In all, there were plenty of signs that Marquette is ready for the Big East grind.
“We’re definitely excited,” Matthews said. “That’ll take away some of the aches and pains—it’s just adrenalin, being ready to play. We were excited today. I think it showed.”