Jerel McNeal led Marquette with 17 points as the Golden Eagles shot almost 54 percent from the field after halftime and went on a 17-0 second half run to break the game open.
"We knew we were going to have to play an outstanding game against Pittsburgh," said Marquette head coach Tom Crean. "We knew that they had so many good individual players that everybody had to do their job, and they did."
Marquette led by as much as 27 late in the second half. The 18 point loss was the worst suffered in Big East play in head coach Jamie Dixon's tenure for Pittsburgh.
"I give credit to Marquette," said Dixon. "They played well and I was disappointed in our performance. We just really got beat by every facet."
Marquette's decisive second-half run began with a Wesley Matthews jumper with 18:27 to go in the game and was capped by a David Cubillan three-pointer that brought the crowd to its feet with a little over 13 minutes remaining. McNeal scored six points during the decisive span, including a flashy reverse lay-up off a feed from Dominic James.
James recorded six of his career high 12 assists during the run and went the entire game without committing a turnover.
"That's special basketball," Crean said of James' performance.
"He was spoon-feeding guys tonight," said McNeal. "He was giving guys the ball where it needed to be…open three-pointers, open shots, open lay-ups. I give him my game ball tonight."
Defense also helped spur Marquette's run. The team took three charges during that span and six total for the game. Marquette also played terrific on-ball defense, preventing the Pittsburgh from getting good looks at jump shots. With 10:48 to play in the second half the Panthers were shooting only 18 percent from the field.
The game began with both teams trading leads, and after an early Marquette run, Pittsburgh resorted to a 2-3 zone that they stayed with for most of the game. However, the Golden Eagles responded with tremendous ball movement to open up most of their looks against the zone. The team recorded assists on 20 of their 28 field goals for the game and committed only 10 turnovers.
"We felt like reversing the basketball, sharp cuts… that was what we needed to have tonight in order to beat Pitt," said Crean.
Marquette closed the first half with back-to-back 6-0 runs to open up a 33-24 halftime lead.
In another important milestone, Marquette freshman Trevor Mbakwe saw his first minutes of the season. The forward from St. Paul, Minn. was medically cleared to play following surgery November 9 for a pre-season knee injury. The team decided to forgo Mbakwe's medical redshirt, and the extra year of eligibility that would have resulted, in favor of his immediate contributions to the frontcourt.
"He never chose to redshirt," said Crean. All along the way he has had in his mind that if he could get himself healed and rehabilitated the right way, he wanted to have the opportunity to play."
Mbakwe saw eight minutes on the court and did not score.
"My teammates kept telling me to be ready," said Mbakew. "And when you go in don't worry about it, just play basketball."
However, Ousmane Barro was the only forward the Golden Eagles seemed to need Friday night. Barro scored eight of the team's first 14 points and finished the game with 14 points and 12 rebounds. The double-double was Barro's eighth of the season, and he also recorded two blocks and a steal on the defensive end of the floor.
"He's playing with great confidence and great energy," said Crean. "He's really playing within himself. He's a senior that's getting near the end of his college basketball career and he knows that there's a certain amount of extra adrenaline he has to have."
David Cubillan's presence was also felt on both ends of the court for Marquette. The sophomore from Venezuela shot 3-of-5 from beyond the arc in scoring 13 points for the game. Cubillan also played spectacular defense on Levance Fields, the preseason All-Big East guard playing in his first game for the Panthers since breaking a bone in his left foot on December 30. Fields averaged 11.8 points per game before his injury, but was held to four points on 1-of-7 shooting thanks to stifling pressure from Cubillan.
"That's one of Cuby's strong points," said McNeal. "Coach assigns him to a guy and he just chases him and tries to get into him and frustrate him."
Marquette's offensive outburst came with leading scorer Lazar Hayward as almost a non-factor. Hayward picked up two quick fouls in the first half and played only six minutes in that period. He finished the night with five points on 2-of-6 shooting from the field.
"Offensively, in the first half we had good shots," said Dixon. "I really thought we had some good looks and we didn't knock them down."
Pittsburgh came in with the third best rebounding margin in the conference at plus-seven per game, yet they were outrebounded by the Golden Eagles 36-33.
"When we lost to them [in the past], they outrebounded us," said Crean. "We knew that was going to be a huge part of the game."
"It was a real emotional night for a lot of people with that team coming back," said McNeal. "I know this night meant a lot to Coach."
The Golden Eagles take the rest of the weekend off before returning to action Tuesday night at St. John's.
**Jeff Wolf is a sophomore majoring in Advertising. Jeff is the Head Student Writer for MarquetteHoops.com and is also the Assistant Sports Director for Marquette Radio.