Milwaukee, WI – The Buffalo Bulls came calling on the Marquette Golden Eagles on Friday night bringing with them a perfect 11-0 record and hoping to add Marquette to its list of major school victims that included West Virginia and Syracuse. A one-point Marquette lead at halftime opened into a back-and-forth game early in the second half, but striking quickly as he is known to do, Marquette’s Markus Howard unleashed a torrent of three-point baskets, runners and free throws on his way to scoring 40 second-half points to lead the Golden Eagles to a 103-85 victory. “Markus’ second half was as good a performance I think I’ve ever seen in a half,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski. “He was absolutely incredible.”
Howard’s eruption came after the 5-11 junior guard labored through a first half that saw him put up the very un-Howard like numbers of 1-for-7 shooting and five turnovers. Wojciechowski labelled his star guard’s first half play “disjointed.” Howard did make two free throws with four seconds left in the first half to put Marquette ahead 39-38 heading into intermission and give the sellout crowd of 17,567 a preview of what was to come in the second half. “He (Howard) wasn’t himself in the first half,” said Wojciechowski. “We knew Markus was going to play better in the second half. I just didn’t know it was going to be to the tune of 45 points.”
That Howard could go off on impressive scoring streaks was no surprise to the college basketball world in general and Buffalo Coach Nate Oats in particular. Buffalo denied Howard the ball successfully in the first half. But the dynamic lead guard broke free in the final twenty minutes. He used his quick first step off the dribble to infiltrate the Buffalo defense and worked off screens to free himself up from behind the arc in making 11-of-18 shots in the second half including 8-of-10 from distance. In his most ignitable stretch covering a five-minute period, Howard scored an incredible 25 straight Marquette points.
“We knew he (Howard) was good and that he scored 45 points against Kansas State, but I didn’t think he could do that against us,” said Oats. “We have two pretty good defensive guards. We switched more in the second half, but I thought our bigs came up a little late at times. You screw up once or twice, he sees the ball go through the rim and you’ve got problems. That was the best individual performance I’ve ever seen. He made tough shots. I should have started trapping him earlier to make him give it up and have someone else beat us. That’s on me.”
Buffalo took advantage of Howard and his teammates’ struggles to find their rhythm early in the game to race out to a 19-10 lead after six minutes. Buffalo’s do-everything 6-3 guard CJ Massinburg and 6-7 wing Jeremy Harris each accounted for eight points in the Bulls run out of the gate. “You’ve got to bury them when you’ve got them down by ten points,” said Oats. “They out-toughed us. It doesn’t say much about our toughness when we couldn’t put them away in the first half.”
Marquette found its footing with the help of bothers Sam and Joey Hauser. Joey, a 6-9 freshman, brought the Marquette fans to their feet by knocking down three triples, all off the catch, in a four-minute span deep in the first half. He played a condensed version of the playground game “around-the-world” in the process connecting on shots first from the left corner, then the left wing and finally at the top of the circle. Sam, a 6-8 junior, also a knockdown shooter from distance, took his game into the paint to post-up his defender and score over the top of him. “I saw Sam and Joey going off in the first half and I thought maybe it’s their night,” said Howard.
“They have a real high major program look to them,” said Oaks, whose team plays in the Mid-American Conference and has won the league’s tournament and automatic berth to the NCAA tournament three of the last four years. “The Hauser brothers were backing us down and we were trying to guard them with 6-2 guards.”
Sam took his game out onto the floor in the second half to show off his marksmanship from behind the arc and in the process support Howard’s long-distance shooting efforts. He connected on 3-of-4 long-range shots in the second half, with all his makes coming in front of the Marquette bench from the left wing area. All three came off the catch, one after he slipped a screen and the other two in early offense. Sam scored nine points in each half to finish with 18 on 7-of-12 shooting, and drew the praise of his coach who called him “as trustworthy a player as any player I’ve ever been around.” That’s high praise from someone like Wojciechowski who has has experienced a lot of basketball first as a guard at Duke where he was selected the country’s defensive player of the year his senior season and later as a 15-year Duke assistant coach.
The Bulls were coming off a huge win three days earlier when they traveled to Syracuse and hung a 71-59 loss on the Orange, the first victory for Buffalo over its intrastate rival in 55 years. With Buffalo coming into the game as the 14th ranked team in the country and Marquette holding down the 20th spot in the same AP poll, the Buffalo-Marquette match-up represented the first time in the history of Buffalo’s program that it faced a ranked opponent when being ranked itself. It was also the Bulls final opportunity to slay an opponent from a high division one conference before finishing their non-conference schedule at Canisius and then starting their conference slate of games.
Massinburg finished with his team-leading 18 points and enjoyed an efficient 5-for-11 shooting night from distance. But he misfired on his only three shots from inside the arc to finish with a pedestrian 5-for-14 overall shooting night. Senior Jeremy Harris, a 6-7 wing, led Buffalo with 22 points. A left-hand dominant player, Harris knocked down 4-of-7 shots from behind the arc while pulling down seven rebounds and adding three assists. Harris has a silky element to his game and pretty much got to where he wanted on the court. He lacks the size of former NBA player Tayshaun Prince, but his reedy body, left-handed shot delivery and ability to score at all three levels was reminiscent of the former Kentucky star. Senior Dontay Caruthers came off the Buffalo bench to make 7-of-11 shots and score 20 points.
The game represented a homecoming of sorts for Oats, who grew up in Wisconsin and played collegiately at Maranatha Baptist College in Watertown, Wisconsin. He started his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater before moving on to an assistant’s job at Wisconsin-Whitewater. He took his first head coaching job at Romulus High School in Detroit where he coached for ten years and attracted the attention of Bobby Hurley, then the coach at Buffalo. Hurley brought Oats onto his Buffalo staff and the university promoted him to the top coaching job after Hurley left for the head coaching position at Arizona State.
Marquette got a big boost from a big man, 6-9 sophomore Theo John, who is having more success this season playing without fouling as he transitions into his second season of college basketball. John’s best skill is shot-blocking. He swatted away seven shots on Friday night in addition to finding time to fill up the stat sheet with a team high nine rebounds, three assists and six points. “Theo has made the most improvement of anyone I’ve ever seen from his freshman to sophomore years,” said Howard. “Theo is our last line of defense. He’s a huge key for our defense and I’m glad he’s on our side.” Wojciechowski added that John “did a great job of protecting the basket and a tremendous job of bailing us out.”
6-7 wing Jamal Cain, who has seen his playing time this season limited by the emergence of Joey Hauser among other players, came off the bench to play perhaps his best game of the season. He made all three of his shot attempts in scoring six points, collected five rebounds and blocked two shots in 18 minutes. Cain is a bouncy wing with range behind the arc. He scored one basket at the rim and two others on a pull-up jump shot at the right elbow and a step-back jumper along the left baseline, both times dribbling into shots to his left. “Jamal Cain’s play was awesome to see,” said Wojciechowski. “He’s had a good attitude this season. We don’t win the game if Jamal doesn’t play the way he played.”
But the night belonged to Howard who earlier in the day was named as one of 20 players to the Oscar Robertson Award Midseason Watch list. (Also included on the list was Massinburg.) He apologized for his wet hair upon addressing the media after the game by saying he was “doused with water by my teammates.” This was the third time in his career that Howard went off for 40 points or more in a game and it ties his high mark of 45 points in a regulation game. (He scored 52 in an overtime win at Providence last season.) Asked to explain how he felt draining shot after shot in the second half, many of them with Buffalo defenders with hands in his face, Howard said he “can’t really explain what it was like for me. I’m always going to keep coming at you…not just me, but the whole team.”
Marquette resumes play on December 28 when it hosts Southern. Then it’s off to New York to take on St. John’s on January 1 for the start of the Big East conference schedule.