NEW YORK -- A season ago, Marquette won 22 games and went all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, yet was just 4-7 in games decided by five points or fewer.
This season is starting very differently, as evidenced by the Golden Eagles’ thrilling 79-77 win over Washington on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic.
Marquette, ranked No. 11 in the country, is now 8-0 on the season. Coach Buzz Williams was pleased with the victory, but not with his team’s play early in the game, nor with himself.
“I thought [Washington’s] energy and their intensity to start the game, we were not able to match,” said Williams. “And I think I did a poor job of helping our team when Chris Otule got hurt. (Otule, Marquette’s starting center, sprained a knee less than two minutes in and did not return -- he will have an MRI on Wednesday.) Because that changes how you have to guard ball screens. That changes when and if you’re gonna trap the post, and who you’re gonna trap the post with. And I didn’t think that I handled that very well.
“I thought once we kinda got in a groove, we were better.”
They certainly were. After falling behind quickly 11-2, Marquette rallied back to take its first lead of the game, 27-26, just under six minutes before halftime. The Golden Eagles led 37-34 at intermission.
The second half of this game was a classic see-saw battle, with 18 -- yes, 18! -- lead changes. Neither team led by more than five (and that was only after Marquette’s first bucket of the second half).
The game came down to the final minute. Washington’s Terrence Ross (team-high 19 points) hit a tough foul-line bank shot to give the Huskies a 77-76 lead with 17 seconds left to play. Williams elected not to call a timeout -- he had already gone over a play with his team in an earlier timeout, in case Washington scored on the previous possession.
The ball ended up in senior forward Jae Crowder’s hands. “My man showed pretty hard, I got a good screen from Jamil Wilson to pop out to the corner,” Crowder said. “Once that happened, I knew I had a good look at the rim.”
The shot, from just beyond the 3-point arc, was on the money, giving the Golden Eagles a two-point lead with 6.3 seconds remaining.
Washington elected not to call a timeout, instead pushing the ball up the floor. Abdul Gaddy’s well-defended desperation heave from the right wing was way off at the buzzer.
“Yeah,” said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, when asked if he thought about calling a timeout to set up a last shot. “Probably in retrospect, probably would have liked to.”
This is the Golden Eagles’ second win by five points or less this season, following a 59-57 win over Norfolk State in the championship game of the Paradise Jam on Nov. 22.
Marquette was also coming off a highly impressive 61-54 win at No. 7 Wisconsin just three days ago. Williams admitted that fatigue may have played a role in his players’ struggles Tuesday night, particularly at the start.
Leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom had 23 points, but shot just 6-for-17 from the field. Crowder added 18 points, 16 of them coming in the second half.
“I think we’re whipped,” said Williams.
On the bright side, Marquette -- picked to finish sixth in the Big East this season in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll -- looks like it’s capable of being much better than that, as we inch closer to the beginning of conference play.
Losing Otule for a significant period of time would hurt, to be sure. But this Marquette team is deep -- Williams used 11 players on Tuesday, with seven of them contributing four points or more.
There have been some pleasant surprises. Among them are freshman Todd Mayo, the younger brother of NBA player O.J. Mayo, who scored 11 points off the bench against Washington, and has scored in double figures in five of the team’s first eight games.
There may be some increased competition for playing time in the weeks ahead, and talk of that made Williams grin at the postgame podium.
“Yeah, I like that,” Williams said. “It’s good. Recruit as many good players as you can, win as many games as you can, and play as many as you can along the way.”