Milwaukee, WI – With two of the highest scoring teams in the Big East Conference in Xavier and Marquette squaring off in the conference opener for both schools on Wednesday night, the more than 15,000 fans who braved sub-zero wind chill factors in Milwaukee to file into the Bradley Center had every right to expect a high scoring game. Led by seniors Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura, Xavier outlasted Marquette 91-87 in a highly entertaining game that Xavier was only able to put away in the last minute of play. “What a great Big East opener,” said Musketeers Coach Chris Mack.
Bluiett, named by some preseason publications as the conference player of the year, led the Xavier scoring parade with 23 points. With Marquette chipping away at the Xavier second-half lead and having the opportunity to tie or take the lead on more than one occasion late in the game, Bluiett kept the Golden Eagles at bay by draining four free throws without a miss in the last minute of the game to put the Musketeers in the win column and avenge the 22-point loss Marquette put on Xavier in the same building last season. “Beats being here a year ago,” commented Mack.
Bluiett threw his name into the NBA draft hat last spring only to withdraw it when he failed to receive an invitation to the NBA pre-draft combine. At 6-6 with wiry strength and a body comparable to Courtney Lee of the New York Knicks, Bluiett is a three-level scorer. Entering the game with a 45 percent shooting percentage from behind the arc, ninth best in the Big East, Bluiett was uncharacteristically as cold as the Milwaukee weather from behind the arc against Marquette. He connected on only one of eight three-point attempts, but that one came from straight away andseveral feet behind even the NBA three-point arc. Bluiett shoots off the catch and dribble and fades to create separation when closely guarded. His release is quick and his shot rotation pure, but while his long range shots looked good leaving his hand, they mostly found an unkind rim against Marquette.
Good players seem to find other ways to help their teams when one facet of their games is off kilter, and that was the case for Bluiett. He revved up his midrange game to knock down five of eight shots inside the arc and his four-for-four free throw shooting performance in the final minute of play was part of a 10-for-11 night from the free throw stripe. With his name all over the Big East individual stat categories, Bluiett put his stat-stuffing skill set on display in leading the Musketeers with eight assists and six rebounds.
Macura scored 11 of his 15 points after intermission. As is often the case with the 6-5 Macura, it’s as much about the “when” than it is the “what.” With a well-earned reputation over the years for making plays at winning time, Macura was his usual clutch self on Wednesday night. He connected on a right wing three-point shot with seven minutes left in the game to push the Xavier lead to 70-65, and he attacked a hard closeout from the right corner to score at the rim with less than two minutes in the game to break an 80-80 tie and give Xavier a lead it would never relinquish. “J.P. is as competitive a player as I’ve ever coached,” said Mack. “Whether it’s basketball or checkers or chess, it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t trade him for any player in the country. He’s not the kind of player grabbing the stat sheet after the game to look at his own stats.”
Like Bluiett, Macura does more than just score to help the Xavier effort. With Xavier clinging to a two-point lead at the 4:23 mark of the game, Marquette’s Markus Howard busted out of the pack and appeared to have beaten the Musketeers to the Marquette basket. But trailing the play and eating up the court with his long-stride gait, Macura chased down Howard and blocked his shot attempt from behind. Xavier pulled down the defensive rebound and Quentin Goodin made two free throws on Xavier’s next possession to extend the Musketeers’ lead 76-72. “His (Macura’s) block in transition was a game changing play,” said Mack.
Any team facing Marquette must game plan to contain the Golden Eagles top three scorers of Howard, Andrew Rowsey and Sam Hauser, ranked first, second and 14th in the Big East in per game scoring averages entering the game. All three players have the ignitable gene to heat up in a hurry and all three have 30-point scoring games on this year’s resumes. Hauser, in fact, had averaged 25 points per game in Marquette’s last two non-conference games to earn mention on the current Big East Honor Roll.
All three Marquette scorers do work behind the arc with Howard and Rowsey creating shots off the bounce and Hauser shooting mostly off the catch. “We wanted to make sure our big guys were cognizant of staying with their shooters out of screen-and-roll defense until our guards could get back to them so as not to give up open shots,” said Mack. “Howard and Rowsey are not one-trick ponies. They can dribble around you and get to the rim.” Rowsey made six of 17 shots from behind the arc on his way to leading Marquette with 31 points. Howard got up 19 shots, but made only six in scoring 13 points. Unable to find space to shoot from distance, Hauser was held to six shot attempts and scored 12 points. “Holding two of three of them under their averages was about all we could ask for,” said Mack.
While most observers expected a high-scoring game, few probably figured that freshmen from both teams would contribute as much to the scoring festivities as they did. For Xavier, Naji Marshall, a 6-7 big from New Jersey with excellent length, came off the bench to contribute 11 points and pull down three rebounds in 20 minutes of court time. He made his presence felt on the defensive end as well playing point on Xavier’s 1-3-1 half court zone defense to make ball reversal problematic for the Golden Eagles. Although he finished with only two points, 6-3 guard Paul Scruggs made them impactful by scoring at the rim with less than seven minutes to play to boost Xavier’s lead to seven points at the time.
Marquette’s three freshmen of Jamal Cain, Greg Elliott and Theo John combined to score 28 points to give Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski his best freshmen production in any one game this season. Cain and Elliott are rangy wings, 6-7 and 6-3 respectively, who score from all three levels and finish above the rim. Concentrating its defensive efforts as it did on Marquette’s big three of Howard, Rowsey and Hauser, Xavier left Cain loosely guarded when he slipped to the left corner against its 1-3-1 zone. After overshooting his first three-point attempt from the left corner, Cain connected on his second and third attempts and finished the night making four of six shots from distance on the way to scoring a career best 16 points. Elliott made three of four shots, scored eight points and played a strong floor game including chasing down a long offensive rebound in the second half to secure possession for Marquette. John, a 6-9 big with a strong body, battled the Xavier bigs, blocked a shot and connected on both of his shots in the paint to contribute four points to the Marquette scoring effort.
“Our bench had a big game and Jamal shined brightest of all,” said Wojciechowski. “I thought Harry (Froling), Greg and Theo gave us positive minutes. Jamal keeps getting a little bit better, but so do our other guys. I’m proud of those guys.”
Three late-game plays figured heavily in the outcome of this game. In addition to Macura’s chase down block of a Howard lay-up attempt, Xavier converged at the rim to deny Howard of a clean look at a reverse lay-up with less than two minutes left in the game to prevent a potential game-tying basket. Then on Xavier’s next possession, Hauser tapped the ball away from Bluiett only to see Bluiett fall to his knees and slap the ball to teammate Kaiser Gates, standing unguarded in the right corner. Gates, 10th in the Big East with a 45 percent shooting mark from distance, calmly knocked down a corner three-ball to increase the Musketeers’ lead to five points. “I thought there were three or four momentum plays where we had shots at the basket and we weren’t able to convert,” said Wojciechowski. “Those things happen.”
It’s good to have headlining players like Bluiett and Macura, but it’s also good to have depth and Xavier has it. In addition to the double-digit scoring games of Bluiett and Macura, 6-9 sophomore Tyrique Jones (12), Marshall (11) and 6-4 sophomore Quentin Goodin (10) also scored in double figures. That kind of scoring depth pleased Mack. “I want our team to foster a spirit of doing the right thing, of doing what the game tells you to do,” he said. “The guys I have are a fun group to coach. We have a good offensive team, but we have to get better defensively.”
Xavier will get that opportunity to tighten up its defense when it takes to the court next in a home game against DePaul on December 30th. Marquette will look for its first Big East win when its hosts Georgetown also on December 30th.
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