Life in the Big East is seldom a simple endeavor.
Having won four of their past five outings in convincing fashion, the 17th-ranked Marquette Golden Eagles (19-7, 10-4) squandered an opportunity to remain tied atop the Big East standings as they fell to Villanova, 60-56, Saturday afternoon at The Pavilion.
It was a setback which drew the ire of fifth-year head coach Buzz Williams.
“We were not 10-3 [in the Big East] because we did something unique offensively or defensively,” cited Williams, whose club shot 44.9 percent on the afternoon en route to falling to 3-6 on the road this season, as reported by the AP. “We weren’t 10-3 because we’re the most talented or best coached. We were in a position to be in a position because of how hard we played. And we did not play hard enough today.”
Indeed, as the Golden Eagles committed 19 turnovers (equaling their total in the road loss to Georgetown on Feb. 11), which the Wildcats converted into 17 points; attempted only 14 free throws (compared to Villanova’s 25); and saw one player—Junior Cadougan, who net 12 points—score in double figures.
Add it all up and the Golden Eagles find themselves in a three-team logjam (along with Syracuse and Louisville) for second place heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
The Wildcats (18-10, 9-6), meanwhile, have now won three straight for the first time since early January and helped bolster their candidacy for the NCAA tournament.
“[Marquette] beat a lot of teams,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, whose team was picked to finish 12th in the league in the coaches’ preseason poll, according to the AP, “because they compete harder and they execute better.”
During the first 20 minutes of play on Saturday, though, proper execution was not an attribute either team could confidently lay claim to.
With a combined 15 miscues and 28.3 percent (13-of-46) showing from the field, MU and Villanova were knotted at 22 apiece at intermission.
The Wildcats, who were led by Darrun Hilliard’s game-high 22 points, and Golden Eagles played a game of hot potato with the lead over the opening five and a half minutes of the half, before opening up a 46-38 edge with 7:43 to play on the strength of five straight points from Hilliard.
Villanova, who shot 56.5 percent in the second frame, saw their lead swell to 54-43 with 3:32 remaining. The blue and gold would not quietly fade into the night, however, as the visitors from the Brew City, who connected on 60.0 percent (15-of-25) of their shots in the second half, strung together a 9-2 run over the subsequent 2:26 to pull to within 56-52.
The comeback would run out of steam, ultimately, as a dunk by senior Mouphtaou Yarou and a pair of free throws from Daniel Ochefu ensured that the 6,500 in attendance would not leave disappointed upon the final buzzer sounding.
While the 6’1”, 205-pound Cadougan registered his first double-digit scoring output since Feb. 9 against DePaul, the rest of the MU offense proved to be MIA on Saturday.
Junior guard and leading scorer Vander Blue was held to seven points while Davante Gardner, who entered the matchup averaging 12.0 points per outing, was limited to two points (matching a season low) on 1-of-4 shooting.
The trek towards the Big Dance will not get easier for Marquette, beginning with a showdown against No. 8 Syracuse (22-5, 10-4) on Monday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. From there, the Golden Eagles will play host to No. 25 Notre Dame on Saturday, March 2, the team’s Senior Day.
Tip off between Marquette and Syracuse is slated for 6:00 p.m. CT.