Responding from perhaps the most embarrassing defeat of Steve Wojciechowski's brief tenure as Marquette's head coach, YOUR Golden Eagles answered the bell in a big way tonight, claiming a white-knuckle, gut-check 81-80 victory over the 22nd-ranked LSU Tigers and budding superstar Ben Simmons in the Legends Classic.
Changes to the starting 5 were all but certain following Thursday's debacle against Iowa, and, sure enough, Duane Wilson and Jajuan Johnson found themselves on the pine to open tonight's contest, with freshman Traci Carter and sophomore Sandy Cohen III getting the starting nods instead. Those changes paid immediate dividends: after getting blitzed by Iowa in the first five minutes the last time out, the young Golden Eagles came out with their hair on fire to start this one: Henry Ellenson's jumper opened the scoring, and then eight straight points at the rim -- including a layup and a jam from Luke Fischer -- had MU up by double-digits, 10-0, at the first media timeout.
LSU woke up from there, as six quick points forced Coach Wojo to take an early timeout. After trading a couple of 3-point baskets, the teams cooled off for the next five minutes, but then a personal 5-0 run from JJJ staked Marquette to a 27-18 lead. Marquette was playing the kind of inside-out basketball that's been missing from the season in general, and the Iowa disaster in particular, with guards attacking the paint with abandon.
And then Ben Simmons woke up.
From the 5:17 mark of the first half to intermission, LSU's preposterously talented (and, if we're being fair, preposterously praised) freshman phenom scored six points -- including a vicious, right-handed slam over Fischer -- for the Tigers, assisted on Tim Quarterman's triple, grabbed four rebounds, ran the point in transition, and discovered where Carmen Sandiego has been hiding all these years. The kid is like some kind of mutant, seven-foot octopus. He was freaking everywhere tonight, and I'm almost immediately regretting calling him "preposterously praised," because he's really, REALLY, really good.
Anyway, after surviving that mini-onslaught and the two first-half fouls that kept Ellenson glued to the bench for the latter portion of the first half, Marquette carried a two-point lead into the break, 36-34. Wilson came off the bench to score 10, Fischer added 9, and Johnson chipped in 7. In fact, things would've been looking downright perty had it not been for 13 first-half turnovers, as LSU unleashed a full-court press that had Carter in particular confounded.
After the break, it was Henry Ellenson's turn to shine. Hank drilled a 3, hit a jumper, then finished a layup following a nifty feed from Wilson, and Marquette seemed to be in control with a 45-38 lead. But for the rest of the game, a pattern emerged: Marquette would stretch the lead to 7 or 8 or 9, LSU would respond with a quick run to trim the margin to 2 or 3, then one of the good guys would hit a 3 and you'd exhale, then one of the bad guys would hit a 3 and you'd groan. All of a sudden, there were 2 minutes left in the game, and Ellenson fouled out on a dubious push-off with MU clinging to a 5-point lead.
And then stuff, as they say (at least if there are kids around), got kinda weird.
LSU snagged four offensive rebounds on the ensuing possession -- and just when we were about to say such nice things about Marquette's work on the boards, too -- finally resulting in a foul on Cohen and two free throws for Simmons. More full-court pressure caused Carter to cough up the rock again, trimming MU's lead to one. Wilson's free throw restored the margin to two, but then Cheatham dribbled the ball away and Josh Gray's free throw halved the lead again.
And then Duane Wilson -- who needs to develop a conscience, like, yesterday -- nearly gave his coach a stroke when he chucked up a 3-point attempt with Marquette up 79-78 and 30 seconds left. Simmons threw in a ridiculous, half-hook half-layup half-blind shot to give LSU its first lead of the game. After a timeout, Jajuan Johnson quickly drew a foul on Gray and sank two cold-blooded throws to restore Marquette's lead.
Simmons raced up court, and FINALLY Marquette played the kind of smart, help defense we've been begging for all year. Fischer sagged off Simmons, forcing a pass to the baseline, and then was in perfect position to force another pass when Brandon Sampson drove on Carter. Sampson flung the ball back to Simmons, and Johnson got away with going for the steal when Simmons, for some reason, whipped the ball to Jalyn Patterson, whose 28-footer came up way short.
Fischer's excellent D on the final play was the perfect coda to a fantastic all-around night; the big man paced Marquette with 19 points (7-11 from the floor, 5-8 from the line) and 8 rebounds and exploited the hole in the middle of LSU's defense all game long. Johnson, Ellenson, and Wilson each tallied 16 for the Golden Eagles, but JJJ gets mentioned first because Ellenson and Wilson each had four turnovers, too. Simmons ended the night with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and comparisons to LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Anthony Davis, and (if I heard correctly) Jesus Christ, if He had a better handle.
With the win, Marquette evens its record at 2-2 and maybe gets its practice gear back. YOUR Golden Eagles also get a date with the winner of tonight's North Carolina State-Arizona State game.