For at least part of Saturday's Big East matchup between West Virginia and Marquette, it looked as though the Mountaineers might find a way to pull out an impressive road win in Milwaukee. Down the stretch, however, the Golden Eagles showed why they are a bona fide Big East title contender, out-hustling, out-muscling and out-playing WVU en route to a 75-53 win at the Bradley Center.
The game's opening minutes foreshadowed what much of the afternoon would be like for West Virginia. Starting forward Da'Sean Butler, who has been plagued by foul problems in the past, picked up a pair of quick personals in the first five minutes of play. Freshman point guard Truck Bryant also picked up two early fouls in the first half.
WVU head coach Bob Huggins quickly benched Bryant– the only true point guard available to the Mountaineers right now as junior Joe Mazzulla continues to rehab from a fractured growth plate in his left shoulder. At the same time, Huggins rolled the dice by leaving Butler in the game for virtually the entire opening half. With Bryant on the bench, though, Butler and senior guard Alex Ruoff had to take over the primary ballhandling responsibilities.
"Truck gets two fouls early and you take him out, so you're playing guys in positions where they haven't played before," Huggins explained. "If you want to run a set, Da'Sean can't throw it to Da'Sean. Alex can't throw it to Alex. And you can't take any of those other guys out and handle the ball."
Butler, who did not score prior to picking up his second foul, got hot for the final 15 minutes of the half, scoring 16 points, including his buzzer-beating 3 to give the Mountaineers a 31-29 halftime lead. The Mountaineers led by as many as eight in the first half.
As it turned out, Butler's 3 would mark his final points of the day. Just 30 seconds into the second half, he was whistled for his third foul. Less than two minutes later, with the Mountaineers leading by four, Butler picked up his fourth.
Marquette senior Wesley Matthews went on his own personal 9-0 run, which began just prior to Butler's fourth foul, to lift the Golden Eagles into the lead.WVU would respond with six straight points, taking a 41-40 lead on a pair of free throws by Kevin Jones, but without Butler on the court, the Mountaineers just couldn't muster enough offense to stay in the game. As WVU continued to struggle offensively, it did not help itself on the other end of the court, where the Mountaineers continued to put MU on the line. Marquette took advantage of its opportunities, sinking 24 of 27 free-throw attempts on the afternoon.
"We're struggling like crazy to score, but then we're giving them two shots at the other end," lamented Huggins. "You can't do it. You just can't do it."
The Golden Eagles jumped out to a nine-point lead later in the half, at which point Huggins had no choice but to re-insert Butler and his four fouls. On Marquette's next offensive possession, Butler was called for a push-off while trying to grab a rebound. As the junior slumped and walked off the floor, so too did West Virginia's chances of getting a win.
"They started to make a little run at us and pull away, so there was no use in keeping Da'Sean over there while the game gets out of hand. You've got to play him," Huggins said. "He doesn't play 20 seconds and fouls out."
Butler's disqualification was the final blow to WVU, which trailed by nine at that point in the game. Marquette would end the afternoon on an 18-5 run. At the end of the game, Huggins shot a couple of icy stares in the direction of first-year MU head coach Buzz Williams as the Golden Eagle starters continued to bomb away with the game well in hand. Senior guard Dominic James drained a 3 with 25 seconds to play.
"At the end, they were having fun. They were having a lot of fun. They'll have a lot of fun the next time we play them," said an obviously-perturbed Huggins.
Showmanship aside, Marquette and its veteran lineup left no doubt that it was the better team on Saturday. Jerel McNeal led the way with 26 points. James added 17 to go along with seven assists and no turnovers. Matthews chipped in 13, all of which came in the second half.
As a team, MU turned the ball over just eight times. By comparison, the Mountaineers had 13. WVU shot just 25 percent from the floor in the final 20 minutes, while the Golden Eagles went 12-23 over the same time frame.
The statistics highlight a strength for Marquette and a weakness for WVU. The Golden Eagles are a veteran, battle-tested squad. West Virginia is not. In the rugged Big East, though, the Mountaineers must find a way to compete or they will be on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday.
"When guys are recruited to play at a high level, then they need to play at a high level," Huggins said. "It's hard for freshman. We talked coming into the game that (Marquette) was playing four seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, and then bring juniors off the bench. We're relying on freshmen. It's hard."
The Mountaineers return to the court on Wednesday night for the annual Capital Classic in Charleston against Marshall.