The Marquette Golden Eagles opened up a huge lead to begin the game and held off a late attempt from Providence to take down the Friars 87-66 Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
They were led by Jimmy Butler, who neared a triple double with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists, and Darius Johnson-Odom, who broke out of a mini-shooting slump to finish with 23 points and three three-pointers.
Marquette scored the game's first 17 points, thanks in part to eight quick points from Darius Johnson-Odom, and played stifling defense that forced Providence to miss its first 11 shots.
"I think we just did a great job mentally preparing for the game," Johnson-Odom said. "It's hard to beat a team twice so we had to come out and do waht we do best of both ends of the floor. I thought we did a great job of finding each other and getting paint touches."
Marquette finished with a season-high 20 assists and scored 38 points in the paint.
By the time the Friars got on the board at the 14:42 mark of the first half, Marquette had made its run and asserted itself on the offensive end. It was a bittersweet half for the Marquette offense, which shot 57 percent from the field and scored 46 points, but also committed nine turnovers.
Marquette opened up a 41-17 lead on two Davante Gardner free throws, but the Friars responded with a 13-3 run to close the half. Held in check the majority of the first half, sophomore Vincent Council scored 12 points in the final 3:17 to close the Marquette lead to 46-33 at intermission.
The second half gave the feel of more deja vu for Marquette fans, who have watched the Golden Eagles give away large second half leads to Big East opponents multiple times this season. But this time when the Golden Eagles bent, they didn't break.
The Friars got within seven at one point early in the second half, but Marquette held its ground and answered every time Providence got close. They led by double digits the final 16 minutes on the way to its third straight opening round victory in the Big East Tournament.
Butler was everywhere on the court, making every second of his 31 minutes spent on the floor count. He made the right decisions on every play (1 turnover), didn't force any bad shots (8 assists), battled inside against a bigger Providence team (10 rebounds), and dominated when he needed to on the offensive end (18 points).
The senior's play tonight allowed Buzz Williams to admit Butler was "the smartest player [he] has ever coached".
"I don't know what to say," Butler said of his performance. "I feel like I've been playing this way the entire year. I've been much more aggressive on the offensive end, but I think when it comes to the defensive end that's what starts everything for me and that's what starts everything for my teammates."
Marshon Brooks, the Big East's leading scorer, finished with 20 points and three rebounds, but never took over the game on the world's most famous arena like many thought he could have. Butler and Johnson-Odom both took turns guarding the senior wing, holding him six points under his Big East scoring average.
It was a balanced and spread out attack for Marquette offensively as all 10 scholarship players who entered the game made a field goal, with eight players scoring four or more points.
With the win Marquette improves its stance on making the NCAA Tournament, but it could secure a bid with a win over No. 6 West Virginia tomorrow night. The Golden Eagles beat up on the Mountaineers in their first meeting in a 79-74 victory, but West Virginia comes into the game on a three-game winning streak.
"If we continue to fight and play defense, guard, and get back in transition, we could in New York for a while," Butler said.
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