MILWAUKEE – Jerel McNeal led all scorers with 24 points and Wes Matthews scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half, as Marquette opened Big East play with a 79-72 victory over No. 15 Villanova on New Years Day.
McNeal shot 50 percent from the field (7-of-14) and 50 percent from beyond the arc (4-of-8) while also dishing out a season-high seven assists.
"Veteran guards win college basketball [games]," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. "Those guys are big time."
After a back-and-forth first half, the Golden Eagles held a 36-34 edge going into the break. McNeal scored nine of Marquette's final 10 points in the first half, including a runner in the lane to beat the halftime buzzer.
The second half featured several pivotal runs, with both teams taking the momentum in stretches. Marquette jumped out to a quick 7-2 run to open the break and led 43-34 at the 15:44 mark. Villanova then switched into a 2-3 zone and used it to spark an 11-3 run of their own to take a 47-46 lead with 11:08 to play.
"In all the games that we've played, we have been in every situation that you can think of," said McNeal. "We know that the most important thing is to keep our poise and keep focused on what our team does best."
Then, with the score tied at 52 at 8:51, Marquette went on a 19-9 run over the next 7:33 to pull out to a 71-61 advantage that would carry them the rest of the way. Matthews scored 11 of Marquette's points during the pivotal stretch.
"He was just the missing piece tonight," McNeal said of Matthews. "He was a little quiet until that point, an then he hit that first one… It takes a lot of pressure off of us when he starts making shots."
The Golden Eagles showed strong ball movement on offense, which led to good shot selection. They shot 41.7 percent from three-point range (10-of-24) and go to the free-throw line often, where they sank 74.2 percent (23-31).
Corey Stokes came off the bench to lead Villanova with 21 points on 6-of-14 shooting. Both Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham fouled out late in the second half for the Wildcats. The pair finished with 15 and 16 points, respectively. Four of Reynolds' fouls came on the offensive end, where he was guarded by Dominic James.
"I could tell what kind of game it was going to be right away because [Dominic] was locked in and I was locked in," said McNeal.
James and Lazar Hayward added 17 and 15 points, respectively, for the Golden Eagles.
Marquette returns to the Bradley Center on Sunday to take on Cincinnati, as they will attempt to start 2-0 in Big East play for the first time in program history.
NOTES: Dwight Burke fouled out after scoring two points and grabbing two rebounds. His replacement, Patrick Hazel, played strong interior defense against Cunningham in 21 minutes of action… Matthews is now 22nd on Marquette's all-time scoring list with 1,301 career points… Jimmy Butler collected a career-high seven rebounds in 15 minutes of action.