As always, moxie is mantra for Marquette

PHILADELPHIA -- The game lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Jay Wright was hit with a technical before halftime. Buzz Williams earned one, he says, for not saying a word. “I never got a 'T' for not saying anything. I guess you can get T's now for body language.’’

Maalik Wayns screeched a playground curse word that wouldn’t earn a pre-teen a date with a bar of soap, racking up technical No. 3 of the day.

And not even Twitter can claim as many tweets per hour as Pat Driscoll, James Breeding and Tim Clougherty made on their whistles -- 45 in all.

After surviving all of that, not to mention a game that offered a rhythm only Elaine Benes could dance to, Junior Cadougan emerged from his locker room thoroughly nonplussed.

“Ah, this is nothing,’’ the Marquette guard said. “You should see our practices.’’

This was a game that only the winner could love, a Bataan Death March up and down the court to the free throw line 57 times.

Make no mistake. Marquette did indeed love it, loved it a bunch. The Golden Eagles claimed their sixth win in a row the hardest way possible, surviving not only the aforementioned but also a one-time 18-point deficit for the 82-78 win against Villanova.

The difference between spots No. 2 and No. 16 in the Big East (and perhaps even spot No. 1 if Fab Melo isn’t cleared soon) is about as thin as a supermodel. Too many inexperienced teams, too few superstars have collided to make this one of the most unpredictable league seasons in recent memory.

The most talented team may not win the whole thing. The toughest very well could.

Right now Marquette, holding steady in second place, is making a bid to be that team. Buoyed by practices that Cadougan said almost always include scuffles, the Golden Eagles make up in attitude what they may sometimes lack in size.

“It’s how we work. It’s what we believe in,’’ Williams said. “I don’t say that to be arrogant, but you can’t go on the road, playing against any team in this league and go through what we did and have a chance to win unless you’re extremely tough. But you can’t just be tough on game day. You have to be tough all the time.’’

This one required every ounce of tough for Marquette, especially after a Villanova team that is fighting to avoid its worst season under Wright since 2003-04 streaked to a surprising 28-10 lead.

Fortunately for Williams, he has toughness personified in the form of Darius Johnson-Odom. The senior, who doesn’t crack so much as the hint of a smile during a game, scored 10 of MU's next 12 points, singlehandedly bringing down the deficit from insurmountable to manageable, 33-21.

Johnson-Odom is more lunch pail than flashy, the sort of player who quietly dominates a game, dominates the statistics but doesn’t draw a lot of attention in the process.

He’s also the guy, Williams said, who dominates a huddle. More vocal than his head coach, DJO kept his team organized in the first half, not with firebrand and preaching but with a casual calm that delivered just as much of an impact.

“I think we were a little too confident early, not because we’d beaten them before or anything but because we’d won five straight,’’ said Johnson-Odom, who finished with a season-high 26 points. “We had a little too much swagger. That was out of character for us in the first half.’’

Marquette’s true character returned in the second half, that endless scrappiness that frustrates opponents. Cadougan draped himself all over Wayns, the league’s second-leading scorer. Wayns, who dropped 39 on Cincinnati two weeks ago, finished with 12 points, hitting only 3-of-10 from the floor. Cadougan also pressured him into six turnovers.

Cadougan and Wayns have been going at it for years, back when both were starring on the high school and summer-league circuit.

“I tried to contain him, keep him out of the paint and just make him feel uncomfortable,’’ Cadougan said. “”He’s tough, one of the best guards in the Big East. They win games when he gets hot.’’

Wayns never did, but Villanova, a young team struggling to find itself this season, hung around anyway. The Cats, in fact, led by four with just a little more than six minutes to play when Wayns was whistled for the technical.

Wayns screamed his frustration at Breeding after the official called a touch out of bounds play out on Nova. He cursed but most would agree it was a mild-mannered expletive on the scale of one to offensive.

Wayns may have been the victim of bad timing. Or cursing. The call came in the wake of a strong-worded edict from NCAA national coordinator of officials John Adams.

“You should have a very low tolerance for players who use profanity towards officials or who ‘wave you off’ after a call, etc.,’’ Adams wrote. “These type of actions call for Technical fouls. Call them!’’

Johnson-Odom made the two free throws and Jae Crowder scored on the ensuing possession, putting in a reverse layup to tie it.

The Wildcats, already down two big men in Mouphtaou Yarou and Markus Kennedy, never recovered.

If there is solace for Villanova it is that the Cats are clearly taking baby steps toward improvement. It’s likely too late to resurrect this season. This team seems predestined for a date with the NIT, missing out on an NCAA invite for the first time in eight years.

But in recent weeks the Wildcats are showing more life and, more critically, showing that folks other than Wayns can score.

Maurice Sutton, pressed into action, had the best game of his career with 11 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Dominic Cheek, the potential second scorer Nova needs desperately, had 16 and JayVaughn Pinkston 17.

And Villanova is playing harder, diving for loose balls against Marquette and forcing 16 turnovers.

Marquette, however, played tougher.

And in the Big East, especially this season, toughness wins the day.