TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Jerel McNeal had a hunch Marquette was going to be fine.
“Everybody just had a look in their eyes like: ‘Hey, we’re going to pull it out. We’re not going to lose this game,”’ the sophomore guard said Sunday after stealing a pass and driving nearly the length of the floor to make a layup at the buzzer to give the 15th-ranked Golden Eagles a 70-68 victory over South Florida.
“It was an unbelievable feeling. … It’s just the character of this team,” McNeal added. “It’s not about me. It’s not about one player. It’s just about the team.”
Dominic James scored 16 points and McNeal finished with 13 as Marquette (19-4, 6-2) won its sixth straight—all in Big East play—after losing its first two league games to Providence and Syracuse.
James made a difficult layup in heavy traffic to tie the score with 15 seconds remaining, then McNeal provided his heroics after South Florida called a timeout to set up a potential game-winning play with 9 seconds left.
“I just read it, just trusted my instincts, and I was able to come up with the ball and make a big play at the end,” McNeal said.
McHugh Mattis inbounded to Chris Howard, who was trying to get the ball to Melvin Buckley when McNeal made the steal and dribbled upcourt. Howard hustled back to get defensive position under the basket, but was unable to stop McNeal from scoring.
“I told the team that as disappointing as it is, those are some of the lessons that sports and athletics teach us,” South Florida coach Robert McCullum said. “You can play well, you can do what’s expected of you and unfortunately still come up short.”
Wesley Matthews had 12 points and Ousmane Barro 11 for Marquette, which had four players score in double figures for the fifth striaght time during a winning streak that also includes road victories over Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh.
“I think when you go on the road in this league and you have success, it build a resiliency and it builds a confidence that really nobody can teach,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said.
“It’s not like we can practice it. It’s not like we can show it on film. … Our guys really are resilient. They do not hang their heads when things aren’t going right.”
Mattis led South Florida (11-11, 2-6) with 20 points and nine rebounds. Buckley had 16 points and Kentrell Gransbury added 11 before fouling out.
The Bulls have lost 21 of 24 conference games since entering the Big East last season, but entered Sunday with some confidence after winning their previous two league home games against Cincinnati and Rutgers.
“It’s real frustrating, but the mind-set in the locker room was kind of positive,” Howard said. “Guys were picking each other up. It tells us we can play with anybody. … I think it opens a lot of eyes in the Big East.”
Marquette’s six-game conference winning streak is the longest in the league this season. The Golden Eagles couldn’t have shot much worse early—missing 13 of their first 15 shots—but USF was unable to take control of the game during the dry spell.
Matthews hit four free throws and Dan Fitzgerald and David Cubillan made 3-pointers before James finished a 12-4 spurt with a steal and reverse dunk that put Marquette up 27-21. USF closed to 29-27 before Cubillan made two more long 3-pointers to help Marquette take a 35-29 halftime lead.
There were 10 lead changes in the second half before McNeal delivered his game-winning basket.
Buckley’s jumper put South Florida ahead 62-60, and the Bulls looked like they might be able to pull off the upset when Mattis scored off a lob pass from Howard for a 68-65 lead.
McNeal countered with a free throw with 1 minute remaining, then Marquette tied it when James drove the right side of the lane and set the stage for the exciting finish.
“That was truly like a 15-round fight,” Crean said. “They just kept coming, and fortunately we did, too.”