March 14, 2008
NEW YORK (AP) — Jerel McNeal missed the Big East tournament last year because of a wrist injury. He’s making up for it big time.
The junior guard scored a career-high 28 points and No. 25 Marquette beat No. 14 Notre Dame 89-79 on Thursday night in the quarterfinals. He led the team with 21 points in the opening-round win over Seton Hall.
“It was very hard for us to watch him not have an opportunity to play here last year because of his injury,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said. “I think he has made up for lost time the last two nights.”
The sixth-seeded Golden Eagles (24-8) will play seventh-seeded Pittsburgh in the semifinals on Friday night. The Panthers advanced with a 76-69 victory over second-seeded and 13th-ranked Louisville.
McNeal was the conference’s defensive player of the year last season but he missed the last game of the regular season, the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament because of the injury.
“It was one of the hardest times of my life, working all the way up to that point in the season and not getting to play in the most exciting part of the season, which is March Madness,” McNeal said. “I had a whole year to think about it and I was real anxious to get back to this point.”
Marquette was 0-2 in its only two previous quarterfinal appearances in the tournament and its first win in that round came at the expense of the conference player and coach of the year, Luke Harangody and Mike Brey of Notre Dame.
“McNeal’s been fabulous the last two nights,” Brey said. “We could not get them under control in the second half. That’s a lot of speed coming at you.”
Reserve guard Maurice Acker scored 10 of his 11 points in a 4:07 span of the second half when Marquette took its first double-digit lead with 3:37 to play.
McNeal and Acker played together at Hillcrest High School in Chicago.
“We’ve been together since the fifth grade,” Acker said–and they combined to control the game for the Golden Eagles.
Kyle McAlarney had 20 points for the Fighting Irish (24-7), who reached the semifinals last year for the second time in school history.
Notre Dame appeared to be in good shape at halftime, leading 38-32 despite Harangody, the conference’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, being limited to just seven minutes because of foul trouble. The Irish started the second half on a 6-2 run to take their biggest lead of the game, 44-34 with 18:42 to play.
McNeal, whose previous career high was 25 points last season, scored seven points as Marquette answered with a 13-2 run to take a 47-46 lead with 15:51 to go. Harangody, who finished with 13 points, scored eight straight points for Notre Dame but McNeal had eight of Marquette’s next 10 as the Golden Eagles took the lead for good at 57-54 on his 3-pointer with 11:52 to play.
Acker, a 5-foot-8 sophomore who averages 4.5 points per game, started his personal run with a jumper that made it 66-57 with 7:44 left. When he hit his second straight 3 with 3:37 left to give Marquette a 76-66 lead, Notre Dame called a timeout and the Golden Eagles rushed to midcourt and picked up the diminutive Acker in celebration.
“That just shows how we are as a team,” Acker said of the gathering at midcourt. “When someone’s doing good we’re going to acknowledge it. It just makes you feel good knowing you have teammates behind your back.” Harangody said the first-half fouls “got him out of his rhythm.”
McAlarney credited Marquette’s defense.
“In the second half they went on a few runs we didn’t answer,” he said. “They really got after us and for a stretch they were tougher than us.”
Notre Dame has not lost consecutive games all seasons and Brey seemed relieved that the Irish’s next outing would be in the NCAA tournament. “I am glad we won’t be playing Big East games next week,” he said. “I’ve had enough and I’m sure other coaches feel the same way.”