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A Statement Win: #10 Marquette 66, #14 Villanova 65

This is February.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Marquette Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The setup was everything Marquette fans have been begging for since Buzz Williams left. National Marquette Day. A matchup of two top 15 teams. A nationally televised broadcast with buzz. A stage to let a generational player shine. A chance to beat Villanova and prove themselves to be mentioned in the same breath as one of the nation’s elite programs.

This was something Xavier couldn’t do last year. Despite winning the Big East outright they could not find a way to beat the Wildcats. With a top 10 squad with the best yet to come, this was Marquette’s opportunity to break into the national scene and show that they are worthy adversaries to a program that has stood head over heels above the competition for years.

The team delivered.

Markus Howard had the game of a lifetime. Make no mistake, his turnover on the last offensive possession gave Villanova a shot to win and his miscommunication with Sacar Anim gave Phil Booth a lane to the basket on the final defensive possession. Marquette also comes nowhere close to winning without his consistent presence throughout the game.

While the rest of the team was off to a slow start offensively, Howard caught fire. He finished the first half with 21 points on 8/16 shooting and 1 turnover. The rest of the team had 9 points on 4/13 shooting. Villanova switched on just about every single screen, which has led Markus to struggle in the past, but he showed yet again why he is the best in the country at creating space for himself. He finished with 38 points on 13/24 shooting. The Wildcats knew exactly what was coming and still had no way of stopping him.

The defense showed its chops in the first half as well. Villanova was just begging the Golden Eagles to let their guard down behind the arc, but the defense didn’t budge in that first half.

The second half started off even better. At one point Marquette was up by 15 with a balanced scoring attack and the Villanova offense looking completely lost. But there is a reason why Villanova has won 2 of the last 3 National Championships, and they showed it over the rest of the game.

Eric Paschall played a spectacular game, fighting through what I thought was Sam Hauser’s best defensive game of the season. He finished with 17 and helped initiate the Villanova run that brought them right back into the game at the snap of a finger, making 6 consecutive threes. It boiled over to Jermaine Samuels hitting a three to put them up by 2 right after swatting away an Ed Morrow layup.

From there it was gut check time, and Marquette was not about to be denied. Over the final 6:25 Markus Howard compiled 8 points with only 1 missed shot and 1 turnover. Sacar Anim had a minute to remember, with a three pointer from his favorite spot in the corner that tested the structural foundation of the Fiserv Forum followed up by a tough jumper after Phil Booth responded on the other end.

Ultimately the ball ended up in Phil Booth’s hands with 11 seconds to go. He had scored Villanova’s last 6 points and wanted to force his way into the Big East Player of the Year conversation by winning the game. Collin Gillespie set a screen that confused Markus and Sacar to the point that both took steps towards Gillespie and gave Booth an open lane from the wing. Ed Morrow, who quietly had a terrific game, stepped in with his hands up and denied Phil the easy bucket. Booth got flustered and tossed it to Jermaine Samuels, who threw up a tough contested jumper that fell short. It looked pretty darn familiar to another win that Marquette had over the Wildcats a few years back. The Golden Eagles pulled off a victory in what was one of the best games of the year.

What’s different about this win from the 2017 victory is that Villanova played well today. Not the best game that they’ve played over the year, but they looked the part of a top 15 team. Marquette flat out beat them on a day when Sam and Joey Hauser did not play well at all. Sacar Anim might have played the best game of his Marquette career. He finished with 18 points on 8/10 shooting, with 13 of those points coming in the second half. He and Markus scored every single Marquette point over the final 16:40. I promise that is not a typo. Markus Howard and Sacar Anim were the only 2 Marquette players to register a point over the course of close to half of the game. They came through in the clutch and deserve all the praise coming their way.

With this win, Marquette will really start to enter the national conversation. In today’s early bracket reveal, they were listed as a 3 seed by the committee and that will only improve after today. There’s still work to do, but you have to love the position that this team is in going into the final stretch of the year.

We can worry about that later, though. We still have a whole evening of National Marquette Day ahead of us. Let’s celebrate the victory and pray that the Hangover Gods have mercy on us tomorrow.