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Gardner leads Marquette past Southern, 63-56, in season opener

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Moments before the 97th season of Marquette University men’s basketball officially commenced on Friday evening, a banner was unveiled to commemorate the Golden Eagles’ share of the Big East regular season this past year.

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Three hours later, it was clear that much work was to be done in order for Buzz Williams’ club to be in position to raise another banner to the rafters next year in respect to their maiden season in the revamped Big East.

Yet, despite being limited to 13 made fields; losing the battle of the boards; shooting 36.1 percent from the field and 62.3 percent from the foul line; and getting 71 percent of its offensive output from two players off the bench, the Golden Eagles upended the Southern University Jaguars, 63-56, at the BMO Harris Bradley Center to notch their 27th consecutive home triumph.

Leading the way for the blue and gold, pegged as the preseason favorites to snare the Big East regular season crown by the league coaches, was senior forward Davante Gardner and junior guard Todd Mayo, who combined for 45 points off the bench to lead an otherwise sluggish MU offensive attack.

Jumping out to a 19-5 lead less than six-and-a-half minutes into the affair behind eight points from Gardner, the 17th-ranked Golden Eagles (1-0), who have now won their past 13 season openers, took control early and appeared poised for a comfortable victory.

The Jaguars, who came within seven points of becoming the first 16th-seed in NCAA tournament history to take down a No. 1 this past March (ultimately falling to Gonzaga, 64-58), however, would not wilt.

Beginning with a layup by Calvin Godfrey with 12:45 remaining in the opening frame, Southern (0-1), who shot 35.6 percent (21-59) on the game and were paced by Malcolm Miller’s 14 points, embarked on a 22-13 scoring spurt to whittle the MU advantage to 32-27, en route to trailing by six, 38-32, at intermission.

While Gardner, a preseason first team All-Big East selection, scored 18 of his game-high 25 points in the first half, the 6’3”, 195-pound Mayo, who scored the second-most points (20) in his collegiate career, carried the lion’s share of the scoring for MU in the second frame with 13 points.

However, as was the theme in the Brew City on Friday night, the second half was headlined by lackluster offensive showings by both squads.

While the Jaguars, who committed 17 turnovers and registered an eyebrow-raising 34 personal fouls, misfired on seven of their first eight field goal attempts out of intermission, MU, who missed their first five shots on their way to a 3-of-17 showing over the game’s final 20 minutes, upped its lead 46-34 following a Chris Otule free throw with 14:07 to play.

Although the Jaguars, who saw three players score in double figures, would pull to within 47-43, they would get no closer as the Golden Eagles, despite mustering one basket over the final 14-plus minutes, put the game away down the stretch at the charity stripe.

All told, MU, due in large part to a new NCAA rule forbidding a defensive player to put his hand on the player with the ball, attempted a school-record 53 free throws, 32 of which came in the second half.

“It’s not an emphasis anymore; it’s a rule,” noted Williams, as reported by The AP. “And it goes back to kind of how we were all taught to play: you play with your feet, not your hands. So it’s fairly explicit now. When you’re hands get involved, it’s a foul.”

Leading Marquette’s charge to the free-throw line was Gardner, who made 15 of his 20 free tosses.

“He’s tough,” cited Southern head coach Roman Banks in respect to Gardner, per The AP. “He can score in a lot of different ways, but he really passed the ball well out of double-teams tonight, too. With the new rules, it’s even harder to defend him.”

Senior forward Jamil Wilson was the lone Marquette starter to score more than two points as the Racine, Wis. native pumped in ten points, while chipping in a team-high seven rebounds and three assists.

Marquette, who was won at least 20 games in each of the past eight seasons, returns to the hardwood on Tuesday when they play host to the Tigers of Grambling St. at 7:00 p.m. CT.

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