On The Road With John Rooke: Marquette

Out-toughed. Or, out-tuffed. No matter how you spell it, you can't find either word in the dictionary. It is, however, an apt description of the Friars' trip into frozen Milwaukee.

Simply put, they were out-worked, out-rebounded, out shot – out-toughed – as 14th ranked Marquette exacted a measure of revenge on Providence, winning 69-62 on Saturday afternoon at the Bradley Center.

In the earlier game between these two teams at the Dunk on January 4th, the Friars utilized a decided interior advantage in out-rebounding the Golden Eagles 42-31, and limiting them to a mere 31% field goal percentage for the game. Predictably, the Friars won 74-59, in one of their best overall efforts of the season. That they accomplished the win without Sharaud Curry in the line-up (due to his suspension) only made the win that much sweeter.

This time around, however, the Golden Eagles were ready. And they too, had a missing piece of their puzzle back in the line-up, with sophomore guard Jerel McNeal recovered from an earlier concussion he had suffered, keeping him from playing in Providence.

It was going to take more than a bump on his head to stop him this time around.

McNeal lit the emotional fire underneath the Marquette offense in the first half, scoring 13 of his 18 points in the opening 20 minutes. Additionally, he hit the backboards hard – 7 rebounds at halftime, finishing with 12 for the game (his first double-double of the season) and set the tone and tempo for his team defensively. The nation's #2 thief (in total steals) only managed one steal against PC, but led an effort that successfully overplayed the passing lanes against the Friars offensive sets that caused several breakdowns.

Add to this the overall 42-29 rebound margin that the Golden Eagles held, and for one of the few times this season, Providence found itself outworked and yes, out-toughed, on the floor.

"When you can't get rebounds, when you don't block out, when your players aren't ready to play…," said Coach Tim Welsh, who let this particular sentence trail off into the frigid Wisconsin air, without finishing. His point was made.

The focal point for Marquette was to find a way to slow down Friar senior Herbert Hill. Hill had his way with MU in January, a 23 point, 9 rebound and 7 block effort against 6-8 Ousmane Barro and an undersized Golden Eagle frontcourt. Barro's defense, when the ball got into Hill, was more of the straight-up variety, without leaning in to create contact. It seemed to cause confusion, if not indecision, as Hill was whistled for 2 three-second lane violations. Barro also received more weak side help this time around, and did not have to hit the boards all by himself in this game. In addition to McNeal's game high 12 rebounds, Dan Fitzgerald came off of the bench with 14 points (4-6 on three's) and 5 key rebounds. Marquette was quicker to the ball, and tougher when they didn't have it.

A three point lead at halftime (33-30) gradually worked its' way into double digits, peaking at 13 with less than 10 minutes to play, as the Friar offense bogged down. Still, PC managed to close within 4 in the final two minutes, but an inability to score from the free throw line (6-11 for the game) and missed opportunities off of the backboard proved costly. The Friars played the game within one or two possessions of the lead most of the way, yet for the first time this season, they never took a lead. Marquette, led by McNeal, Wesley Matthews (10-10 at the line) and Fitzgerald always found an answer.

Marquette's win is their seventh straight in Big East play, with three of the wins coming at home. The Golden Eagles improve to 20-4 on the year, 7-2 in conference play. They are also a perfect 14-0 on the season when they out-rebound their opponents. Providence was led by Curry's 17 points, but was hurt by a lack of offensive production in particular from Weyinmi Efejuku, who managed only eight points on 2-5 shooting. The Friars are 12-1 this season when Efejuku scores at least 13 points in a game.

Hill finished with 14 points and 5 rebounds, with no blocks for the Big East leader in each of those categories. Geoff McDermott scored just four points (2-8 from the floor) with six rebounds, but did contribute 10 assists with no turnovers. PC falls to 14-7, 4-4 in the Big East – and will play at the Dunk on Tuesday night against Cincinnati.

Game Notes:
Much of the pre-game talk centered on the weather, brutally cold even by Wisconsin (and New England) standards. Upon flying into Milwaukee on Friday afternoon, the team was greeted with a cold blast of 4-degree air (wind chill of -15) as they boarded the team bus, and when they left the hotel for dinner that evening, the mercury had dipped to sub-zero temperatures. Media reports warned residents to stay indoors whenever possible… the Friars held a Friday practice at the workout facility of the Milwaukee Bucks, facilitated by one of the Bucks' scouts based in North Carolina – Jerry Welsh, Tim Welsh's father…former Friar play-by-play voice Eric Reid stopped by the radio table at halftime of the game, and managed to spin a tale or two on the 20-year anniversary of the '87 Final Four Friars. Reid, who has been an announcer for the Miami Heat for the past 19 seasons, told us that until the Heat won the NBA title this past year, that '87 season was the most enjoyable moment in his broadcast career. He hopes to be in Providence for the May celebration, provided his employer (the Heat) is no longer alive in the playoffs… Marquette held a halftime ceremony to retire the #3, formerly worn by current Heat all-star Dwayne Wade. With Miami in town to face the Bucks on Saturday night, the timing worked to everyone's advantage, perhaps except the Friars, as the Bradley Center was certainly peaking with emotion. As an added surprise, the Heat presented a check for $20,000 to the Marquette men's basketball program, in Wade's name. Yes, PC Athletic Director Bob Driscoll and the Friar Fund's Steve Napolillo were in attendance, and took notice… a rather surreal moment took place in the hotel lobby just as the Friars finished breakfast Saturday, as they were greeted by two costumed characters of Looney Tunes fame – Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat. No sign of Porky Pig or Tweetie Bird, however… the Friars' defense actually performed pretty well, overshadowed somewhat by the struggles on offense. PC forced the Golden Eagles into 21 turnovers that led to 22 Friar points, and held all-Big East guard Dominic James to a rather pedestrian six points on 2-11 shooting… Big East referee Brian O'Connell joined a portion of the Friar travel party at Chicago's O'Hare airport, after refereeing the Wisconsin-Northwestern game. He mentioned he'll be on the floor as part of the crew Tuesday night at the Dunk against Cincinnati. Tim Higgins, Tony Greene and Will Bush had the call at the Bradley Center on Saturday.

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