It's like I always say: if you're going to play a game at the preposterous hour of 10:00 a.m. on New Year's Day, you might as well win the damn thing ... and, in the process, slay some close-loss demons that have vexed you in the first half of the season. And that's just what YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles did on Saturday, riding an incredible all-around performance by Jae Crowder and a sublime second-half shooting performance by Darius Johnson-Odom to a 79-74 triumph over the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Marquette came out of the gates fast in this one, taking advantage of some sloppy play by West Virginia to run out to a 9-0 advantage before the weary Bradley Center patrons could wipe the sleep out of their eyes. But, as you'd expect from a Bob Huggins-coached team, West Virginia took the punch in the mouth and came back swinging, cutting Marquette's lead to four before a 11-4 spurt put the Golden Eagles back up by 11.
To their credit, despite the early start time and the early deficit, the Mountaineers refused to pack it in. I know our friend Country Roads from The Smoking Musket said that WVU doesn't play particularly hard, but that's not what I saw today. The 'Eers kept coming and kept coming and kept coming, and the hot shooting of Casey Mitchell (11 first half points, including three triples) -- and, man, it's too bad for WVU that he was beat up and ineffective last year, because that very good 2009-'10 Mountaineer team would've been even better with a sniper like Mitchell lurking on the perimeter -- and Truck Bryant (10 first half points, including two triples) trimmed Marquette's lead to three at the break.
It was Pepto time again in the second half, as both teams found their stride on offense and traded buckets for twenty minutes. Bryant, again, was outstanding, scoring fifteen points in the second half and keeping his team within striking distance every time Marquette seemed poised to take control of the game. But with the game tied at 59 with eight minutes and change remaining, DJO said: "It's my time," scoring Marquette's next twelve points on a variety of treys and mid-range jumpers. Then, with the outcome still very much in doubt and West Virginia trailing by one, Crowder picked his man's pocket and had a open path to the basket, resulting in an intentional foul by WVU. Jae made a throw, and, on the ensuing possession, Jimmy Butler hit another, and Marquette hung on from there, avenging last season's last-second loss in Morgantown.
- Crowder was a revelation today: he hit from outside, he hit from mid-range, and he attacked the boards relentlessly, grabbing eight total boards, with FIVE coming on the offensive end. The transition from the JUCO game to high-major college basketball is not this easy, folks. Jae is a special talent.
- For the first time this year, DJO shook off a shoddy first half -- he tallied nine first-half points, but he should've scored about fifteen, and his shot was off again -- and came up big at crunch time. I don't know if he was pressing or thinking too much or thrown off by the early start, but, whatever it was, he fixed it and then some. The kid needs to have the memory of a cornerback out there; if he misses a shot or two, put it out of mind and move on to the next play. He's too good offensively to be deferring to his teammates.
- With that said, DJO's biggest play might have come on defense: after Butler hit a throw to put Marquette up three with about 25 seconds left, DJO absolutely smothered Bryant on the other end. Bryant was white hot from deep, but DJO didn't give him any space, fighting through screens and staying in Bryant's shorts for a good fifteen seconds. Ultimately, Bryant had to settle for a forced runner in the lane, and when JFB corralled the miss, that was all she wrote.
- While we're talking about Play of the Game nominees, let's mention two other plays. The first we've already addressed: Crowder's steal and the resulting intentional foul with 30 seconds to go. The second: Marquette was down one with a minute-and-a-half left when Dwight Buycks missed a wide-open three. But Chris Otule was left all alone underneath the basket, and he grabbed Buycks' miss in the air and threw down a thundering two-handed slam. Those were Otule's only points of the game, but they were crucial.
- It was another quiet scoring game for Jimmy Butler. Two days after he attempted only nine shots in the loss to Vanderbilt, JFB was held scoreless in the first half, and he attempted only four field goals for the game en route to a 10-point performance. He was tremendous in every other facet of the contest, grabbing seven rebounds, dishing out six assists, nabbing two steals, blocking two shots and hitting 6-of-8 throws, but still: he needs to be shooting more, and soon.
- Two stats that will make a coach smile (and sleep easy tonight): Marquette outrebounded the 'Eers by eight total (32-24) and by four on the offensive end (13-9). And, on 30 made baskets, Marquette had 22 assists.
- In fact, let's expand on that last point. WVU showed more zone than you'd probably expect from Huggy Bear, but Marquette looked ready, running an effective zone offense that featured well-executed paint cuts. Last year, Marquette's zone offense featured Lazar Hayward flashing to the post, and then distributing to our shooters around the perimeter. This year, with different personnel, MU is again trying to work the ball to the free throw line, but now we've got cutters flashing to the lane for 12-footers or (hopefully) layups. It's a good adaptation to a group with a different skill set.
Onto the awards:
Jimmy Butler Player of the Game: 29 points. Twelve-of-fourteen from the floor. Eight rebounds. Five assists. Four steals. One blocked shot. JAE CROWDER IS A MAN.
Joe Fulce Undersung Eagle of the Game: I would like nothing more than to give this award to Joe Fulce for the rest of the year, but it's painfully apparent that Joe is a shell of his former self. The heart is there, and the fire is there, but the body just isn't going to cooperate. With his ravaged knee preventing him from taking to the air, Joe is a pogo stick without the spring, and it's heartbreaking.
Today's award, then, goes to Vander Blue, who stuffed the stat sheet with six points, five rebounds, and four assists.
Play of the Game: I think there's a compelling case for each of the three plays I've noted above, so I'm going to open this up to voting. The poll is below. Lemme know what you think.
Up Next: Marquette celebrates until midnight, and then the focus turns to Rutgers. YOUR Golden Eagles take on the Scarlet Knights of the State College of New Jersey on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. CDT.