March 14, 2013
NEW YORK – Dramatics played a part in Marquette winning its first BIG EAST championship at Madison Square Garden last weekend.
Now, they’re beginning a road that could end with another.
The third-seeded and 12th-ranked Golden Eagles look to carry their late-season momentum into the BIG EAST tournament Thursday night against sixth-seeded and No. 24 Notre Dame.
Marquette (23-7) was picked to finish seventh in the BIG EAST before the season, but the team vastly exceeded those expectations. Vander Blue turned the season into a memorable one Saturday, darting to the basket and hitting a layup at the buzzer to seal a 69-67 overtime win against St. John’s, giving the Golden Eagles a piece of the regular-season title.
“I wanted to make sure it was the last shot,” said Blue, who had four of his 16 points in overtime as Marquette claimed a share of the championship with No. 5 Georgetown and fourth-ranked Louisville
The Golden Eagles hadn’t won a regular-season title since 2003 in Conference USA, and the timing of this one is special to coach Buzz Williams since the BIG EAST will be vastly difference come next season.
“That’s the icing on the cake for me,” Williams said. “I don’t have the experience that the coaches and former coaches have had in this league. For a country kid from a town of 2,000 in Texas to be a part of what for the last 30 years has been the best league in college basketball. I am very humbled by all that.
“To play at the Garden, to play for the league and to win it with a last-second shot. It couldn’t have been scripted any better.”
Marquette has a chance to begin writing another script as it returns to MSG riding a four-game winning streak. The Golden Eagles have reached the semifinals twice since joining the BIG EAST in 2005.
They were eliminated at this stage by the Cardinals last year despite earning a double-bye.
A rematch in Friday’s second semifinal is possible if Marquette can get past Notre Dame (24-8) and second-seeded Louisville can oust Villanova.
Blue led the way in the Golden Eagles’ last two wins, totaling 38 points after matching his season low with six in a 72-64 victory over the Fighting Irish on March 2.
Nearly everything else went right for Marquette in that one, though. The Golden Eagles shot 59.6 percent and held Notre Dame to 38.3 percent.
The Fighting Irish are 1-6 when they shoot below 40 percent this season.
Notre Dame only shot 41.5 percent overall in Wednesday’s second-round meeting with Rutgers, but connected on 10 of 17 from 3-point range in a 69-61 win.
The Irish have reached the semifinals in each of the last three tournaments but haven’t been able to get that first title – and this is their last chance before departing for the ACC next season.
“We expect to be here a while, no question,” coach Mike Brey said. “We love New York City. I’ll take that over South Bend for a while, so we’re going to stay.”
For that to happen, Pat Connaughton may need to shoot better after failing to score earlier this month against Marquette, when he missed all four shots – including three from behind the arc.
The sophomore swingman didn’t have any similar problems against the Scarlet Knights, sinking 6 of 8 3-pointers to lead the way with a season-high 21 points.
Jerian Grant had 21 against the Golden Eagles and St. John’s three days later before shooting 5 of 22 over his last two games, but Notre Dame’s biggest concern right now lies with Jack Cooley. The All-BIG EAST first-team forward went scoreless in 15 minutes against Marquette while battling the flu, and he’s totaled 21 points in his last three games – including two on Wednesday.
This is the first time these teams have met in the conference tournament since the sixth-seeded Golden Eagles beat third-seeded Notre Dame 89-79 in the 2008 quarterfinals.