Marquette no longer first-round flops

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Here came Kentucky, a blue-and-white blizzard, whittling away their deficit as the game drew to a close. Here came the storied basketball team, as if powered by the ghost of Adolph Rupp, and its seven national championships, and suddenly the Wildcats rallied from what looked like certain defeat to within two points with less than a minute to play.

The Marquette basketball team stood in the way. The sixth-seeded Golden Eagles stood strong. But these Wildcats no longer looked like a No. 11 seed ready to falter.

"They threw their punch," Marquette guard Wesley Matthews said, "and we threw ours right back."

Ka-pow.

Marquette's counterpunch resulted in a 74-66 victory in the first round of the NCAA tournament and maybe knocked Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie silly, considering that he pronounced Marquette capable of reaching the Final Four. "Because of their quickness, and depth," he said.

For the sake of perspective, Gillispie also said he thought Kentucky could have won the national championship. But he rightfully was impressed with Marquette, a team that features three guards in the starting lineup yet still outrebounded the Wildcats 34-26 and committed only seven turnovers.

Still, this victory was less about where Marquette is going than how far it has come.

The past two seasons, Marquette made the NCAA tournament. Both times, the Golden Eagles lost in the first round. Nonetheless, the Golden Eagles taunted history.

Last week, Matthews almost dared skeptics to affix the label of "first-round flops" on Marquette when talked about how one ultimately judges a team's success – based on its performance in the NCAA tournament.

"It's how you finish," Matthews told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "… Can you get your team over the hump? Can you win in March? Can you make it to the big game? Can you win the big game?"

And the other lingering question: Could they win a big game without the likes of Dwyane Wade, who led Marquette to the 2003 Final Four and its last NCAA tournament victory before he bolted for the NBA?

Well, they won a big game, all right. But the best way to judge this team is how it has evolved and how it performed during 40 minutes of basketball against Kentucky.

No one on this team will remind you of Wade. But you will recognize the coach, Tom Crean, who without a transcendent star has assembled a squad that could threaten third-seeded Stanford when the two teams play Saturday here at the Honda Center. It will be a tall order for Marquette, considering the undersized Golden Eagles will be facing Stanford's 7-foot twins Brook and Robin Lopez. But the Golden Eagles already have found a way to scale new heights.

They rely on three junior guards – Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Matthews – and the trio sat side by side at a podium after their victory. Collectively, they scored 48 points. Collectively, they considered what would have happened if they had faced Kentucky's blue-and-white blizzard in either of the past two NCAA tournaments.

"We would have fell apart," McNeal said. "Guys would have stopped talking. Guys would have started hanging their heads a little bit, getting a little bit tight, which we didn't do at all."

Crean interjected, pointing out that these three players were the same ones who as freshmen helped lead Marquette to the tournament.

"They're growing up, they're mature," he said.

It was almost as if the Golden Eagles were growing up before your very eyes Thursday. Those who adhere to seeding will claim they expected such an outcome because Marquette was a No. 6 seed and Kentucky was a No. 11 seed. But it was Kentucky that surged down the stretch of the regular season and drew interest from bracketologists looking for an upset.

They should have looked harder.

The Golden Eagles set the tone early, not so much by taking the lead, but rather by how they played. They attacked.

They were quicker. They were crisper. They were bolder, deploying their guards on kamikaze runs. The Golden Eagles dribbled past Kentucky's guards and into the face of the Wildcats' frontline. Marquette missed its share of forced layups, but it sent a clear message.

This was not a team about to back down. This was not a team that looked saddled with the baggage of two straight first-round losses. This was a team that intended to put aside its recent history and ignore Kentucky's storied history as it took a 33-29 lead at the half.

The lead swelled to 11 midway through the second half, but back came the Wildcats, a cool breeze building into a blue-and-white blizzard. Kentucky's Joe Crawford was draining long-range shots, the Wildcats were scrambling for loose balls and rebounds and Marquette's lead evaporated as if attached to the game clock.

Seconds ticked. The lead shriveled. When Kentucky's Ramel Bradley hit a three-pointer with 23 seconds remaining, the Wildcats pulled within two, trailing 68-66. Marquette's fans looked nervous. The Golden Eagles did not.

In its mad dash to the finish, Kentucky not only had to make a flurry of shots but also had to slow the clock and foul Marquette. The Golden Eagles kept the ball in the hands of one of its juniors, Matthews.

In the final 31 seconds, he stepped to the free throw line and took aim eight times. He sank all eight shots, and in the process sunk Kentucky.

Instead of looking ahead to its second-round matchup after the game, it was time for Crean and his players to reflect on how his team and three guards had matured into one capable of withstanding a 35-point performance by Kentucky's Crawford and the frenetic final minutes.

"We never got that big putaway we were looking for because Kentucky kept coming back," Crean said. "But we stepped up and made plays that we had to make, and that's what you have to do at this time of year."

That's what you have to do to be considered a success. But if Wesley Matthews is right, if it's fair to judge a team by its success in the big games, final judgment can be rendered no sooner than Saturday, when the game gets even bigger.

That's when Marquette will face Stanford's twins, having just survived the blue-and-white blizzard and forecasters calling for a Cardinal red storm.