Marquette escapes upset with 70-68 win at USF
Tomorrow's game story, today! Hey, I haven't blogged in ages. It's the least I can do.
TAMPA – Even though a three-point lead had disappeared in the final minute, USF had the ball in a tie game, coming off a time out with 9.2 seconds left, one shot away from the biggest upset in the Bulls’ short tenure in the Big East.
But as freshman point guard Chris Howard attempted a pass toward senior Melvin Buckley, No. 15 Marquette got a huge play from sophomore Jerel McNeal, who stole the pass with about five seconds left, then sped down the sideline and banked in a layup over Howard at the buzzer, allowing the Golden Eagles to escape with a 70-68 win in a thriller that drew 4,313 to the Sun Dome.
“I just read it, trusted my instincts, and I was able to come up with the ball and make a big play at the end,” McNeal said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. … Once we tied it, everybody had a look in their eye, and we all knew we were going to pull it out.”
For 40 minutes, the Bulls (11-11, 2-6 in the Big East) had played evenly with Marquette (19-4, 6-2), hitting 52.9 percent of their shots while holding the Golden Eagles to 38.3 percent. The Bulls led 68-65 with 1:11 to play when Howard threw an alley-oop lob for a McHugh Mattis dunk.
McNeal hit a free throw with one minute to play after center Kentrell Gransberry fouled out of the game, and Eagles star Dominic James hit a layup in traffic with 15 seconds left to tie the game. James, slowed by a upset stomach, led Marquette with 15 points and six assists.
“I told the team that as disappointing as it is, these are some of the lessons that sports and athletics teach us,” USF coach Robert McCullum said. “You can play well, you can do what’s expected of you and unfortunately you can still come up short. Those lessons apply every day in our lives.”
The Bulls got a big all-around game from Mattis, who had game highs of 20 points and six blocks while matching Buckley (16 points) with a game-best nine rebounds. Howard finished with nine assists, and his errant pass in the closing seconds was his only turnover in the second half.
Despite the frustrating result, USF’s play, even more so than in home wins against struggling Cincinnati and Rutgers teams, sent a message that the Bulls are a team capable of winning enough games to make the league tournament, which takes only the top 12 of the conference’s 16 squads.
“That was the epitome of one where you really hate to see anyone not get a win,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said. “They had an answer for everything, they really did. … We kept telling our team, ‘You have no idea how hard these guys play.’ … It turned out to be one of the dramatic finishes I’ve ever been a part of. I can’t say enough about how good South Florida is, how good a coach (McCullum) is.”
The Bulls, while frustrated to let a huge win get away, pick up more confidence as they close a three-game homestand Saturday against No. 22 Notre Dame.
“It tells us we can play with anybody,” Howard said. “I think it opens a lot of eyes in the Big East, too, that we’re going to come ready to play every game. It takes our confidence to a whole ‘nother level."