The trio of junior guards accounted for half the offense for the Golden Eagles (No. 24 ESPN/USA Today, No. 25 AP), who ran past the Scarlet Knights 78-48 on Saturday for their fourth straight victory.
"Our defense was by far our best offense," said Marquette coach Tom Crean, who has won at least 20 games overall and 10 in the conference in each of the Golden Eagles' first three seasons in the Big East. "When you've got that going, you have an opportunity to be really good."
After a back-and-forth first half, the Golden Eagles (20-6, 10-5) used a 16-4 run straddling halftime to take a commanding lead by relying on a stifling defense that set up a 35-4 advantage on fast break points. McNeal was a pest with five steals and seven rebounds to go along with 14 points and seven assists.
Rutgers (10-18, 2-13) never answered despite shooting 52 percent in the first half and has lost seven straight, its longest streak in seven years. The Scarlet Knights shot 27.6 percent from the field in the second half.
"It was sort of a fool's gold in the first half when we hit some shots," Rutgers coach Fred Hill said. "We are not a jump-shooting team. We are much better when we are getting to the rim."
The Golden Eagles' run highlighted all the reasons they have turned it on in recent weeks -- a fast-paced defense that forced 23 turnovers, unselfish play and timely shots.
"Defense, rebounding, running and sharing the ball; when we are at our pace, we're tough to beat," said Matthews, who had 12 points. "Everyone has to get involved."
Lazar Hayward had 15 points for Marquette while James added 13.
Since falling three points short in a furious comeback at Notre Dame, the Golden Eagles have won their last four games by an average of 20.5 points. Still, they weren't happy after letting St. John's come from way back to only lose by nine on Wednesday night.
"The bottom line is we wanted to come out and play an overall much better 40 minutes. At St. John's, we played about 28 or 29 minutes," Crean said. "Records never matter in this league. They played very well early. We were close, but just not there. We really turned it up in the second half."
But Marquette still had a big scare.
Byron Joynes, Rutgers' 265-pound center, rolled over James, a 185-pound point guard, while going for a loose ball late in the first half and pinned James' right leg underneath him.
James immediately crumpled to the court and had to be helped off. He left the bench moments later, still hobbling badly. He has had a painful junior season, spraining his right wrist badly on Jan. 8 against Seton Hall and missing the first start of his career because of flulike symptoms against Louisville on Feb. 4. But Crean said he would be available for Marquette's next game at Villanova on Monday.
Marquette, 14-1 at home, built a 35-29 halftime lead off a 3-pointer by Matthews. James returned in time for the start of the second half, complete with a new tape job on his ankle.
"He knows he's one of the leaders on this team. You can't show pain, you can't show that you're hurt or down or anything like that when you're looked at upon like he is," Matthews said. "He brings it every day."
James then made the game's highlight play when he flicked a 30-foot alley-oop pass to McNeal to give the Golden Eagles a 41-29 lead.
Rutgers, which did not shoot a free throw until there was 2:50 left in the game, lost eight straight from Jan. 2-27, 2001.
"I don't think I've ever been involved in a game where we only shot two free throws," Hill said. "We settled for too many jump shots."
- Ed Corbett
- Bob Donato
- Les Jones