After the game, Head Coach Tom Crean commented, "We've got a primetime example of trying to find out what we are this year and what our mentality has to be."
Marquette began the game at a furious pace. They built an early lead off hustle plays and consistent scoring from sophomore Jerel McNeal. The Chargers chipped away and evened the score at 22-22 with a Drew Powell layup at the 6:51 mark.
A minute later, Lazar Hayward brought the crowd to its feet, scoring his first collegiate basket off a breakaway dunk with 5:36 remaining. That gave Marquette a two point edge, but for the rest of the half every Golden Eagle basket would have a response from Hillsdale's Tim Homan.
Homan finished the first half with 12 points, including 2-4 from beyond the arc, and the Chargers closed out the final 10:17 of the first half with a 25-14 run. They led 36-32 at the break.
That brought a response from McNeal. The Chicago native turned up the intensity on defense, collecting a tie up and a block seconds into the latter period. He would later add three steals, and he limited the dangerous Homan to 6 points in the second half.
"That was key," said Crean of McNeal's defensive effort.
"That's what we need Jerel to do," point guard Dominic James reiterated. "Any time we need to get stops, that's the guy we look for."
Marquette tied the score at 36 three minutes in on a free-throw from James. The game remained close until Marquette secured the lead for good on a jumper and foul by McNeal with 9:15 remaining in the game. Hillsdale cut the lead to 2 near the six-minute mark, but then the Golden Eagles pulled away. They led by as much as 12 in the latter goings and staved off any final thoughts of an upset with a ten point victory.
McNeal went on to lead all scorers with 19 points, yet he shot only 7 of 22 from the field. As a team, Marquette shot a mere 41% and converted 2 of 10 three point attempts.
James scored only one point in the first half but stepped up his game in the second half. The preseason Wooden Award candidate finished with 13 points and converted all 6 of his attempts from the charity stripe after halftime.
Marquette's team free throw shooting also differed drastically before and after intermission. In the first half, the Golden Eagles made only 6 of 14 attempts (42.9%), compared to 14 of 17 in the second half (82.4%).
Crean said of the second half turnaround, "Our energy went way up. Our ability to talk to each other and play harder went way up. Our free throw percentage went way up."
After the game, the consensus opinion was that the Golden Eagle's quest for offensive consistency must start on the other side of the ball.
McNeal stated, "Everything has to start on defense. We're not a team that's going to flat-out outscore people. When we get everything on the defensive end going it takes our game to a whole new level."
Crean continued, "When we play with a controlled chaotic fear that were not going to get what we want out of a game and we play with that reckless abandon defensively then we have a chance."
Next up for Marquette is Idaho State in the CBE Classic Tuesday. Crean described the Bengals as a quick, athletic team with a tough inside presence. The two teams square off at 7:00 at the Bradley Center, preceded by the matchup of Detroit and Maine at 4:30.
Also a reminder that Saturday night Marquette hosts the Hank Raymonds auction to benefit the Blue and Gold Fund.