Simply put, the Golden Eagles made the crucial plays during the final minutes of the game and the Irish hurt themselves with turnover after turnover as Marquette escaped the Joyce Center with a 80-72 victory over Notre Dame. The loss drops the Irish to 13-12 overall and 4-10 in the Big East. More importantly, it hurts but doesn't kill their chances of making a trip to New York City for the end-of-the-year conference tournament. Notre Dame sits in 14th place as the top-12 get invitations.
"I think we got tight," head coach Mike Brey said. "I thought we pressed. For us to turn it over 16 times is uncharacteristic. That certainly hurt us."
Notre Dame seemed to be taking control of the game in the second half. A Chris Quinn three-pointer with just under eight minutes to go gave the Irish a 56-51 lead. It capped a 7-0 Notre Dame run. That's when Marquette got hot and the wheels started to come off for the Irish. The Golden Eagles (19-8 overall, 9-5 in the Big East) hit four three-pointers on four consecutive possessions, two by Steve Novak, to take a 63-58 lead. Novak ended the contest with a game-high 21 points.
Two free throws by Russell Carter cut the Marquette lead to 63-60 with just over three minutes to play. All season long, Notre Dame has struggled to find ways to make the critical plays down the stretch. More of the same was on display in this game. After cutting it to a three-point contest, the next four possessions from the Irish were less than desirable. They read like this: shot clock violation, Carter turnover, Torin Francis turnover and Chris Quinn getting his shot blocked by fabulous freshman Dominic James. James finished the night with 18 points. In the process, the Golden Eagles made a three-point lead into a 69-60 advantage with just over a minute remaining to seal the deal. It sets up an almost must-win scenario Wednesday night at Providence if this team has any hopes of reaching the Big East Tournament.
"That was a big loss, a real big loss," Francis said, who ended the game with 16 points and 15 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the year and first since the January 11th contest against Syracuse. "But we still have two games left against two teams who are in the same boat as us. They are going to be crucial games for us."
Carter led Notre Dame with 20 points. But it was the shooting of Quinn and Colin Falls that really hurt the Irish. The two, who are the top two scorers on the team, combined to shoot 4-of-21 from the field. Falls continued his streaky year by hitting only 1-of-9. Notre Dame, the top three-point shooting team in the Big East, went just 9-of-28 (32 percent) from that distance on Saturday. Freshman Kyle McAlarney picked up some of the slack as he contributed 14 points.
"I felt for Falls and Quinn," Brey said after the game. "You want it so bad that you tie yourself up in knots sometimes. Quinn and Falls deserve better because they've had great years for us. I felt for them. We tried to sub for them a little bit and rotate them out to try anything to change the atmosphere. We need their legs back under them."
A nip and tuck affair in the first half saw both teams struggle with their shooting early on. Coming into the contest, Marquette and Notre Dame each averaged over 44 percent from the field. The Golden Eagles shot just 3-of-14 from three-point land in the first half but they extended their lead to 27-20 on two free throws by James. The 5'11" freshman led Marquette in scoring in the first half with eight points, including a tip-in dunk that made even the Irish fans ooh and aah.
Notre Dame found their rhythm next. Three consecutive three-pointers, two by Carter and one by McAlarney, turned this seven-point deficit into a 29-27 Irish advantage. McAlarney in particular, was quite impressive in the first half. The freshman's 10 points in the first 20 minutes of action was his best total since he scored 13 in the loss to Villanova back on January 28th. Maybe more impressive than McAlarney's first half was Francis, who scored 10 points while pulling down 12 rebounds before halftime.