Marquette saves its best for Pittsburgh — again

MILWAUKEE — There’s something about Pittsburgh that brings out the best in the Marquette University basketball team.

Quickly and efficiently, the No. 18 Golden Eagles took it to one of the hottest teams in the nation Saturday, beating the 16th-ranked Panthers at their own game and securing a season sweep of Pittsburgh with a 79-69 victory.

Winning the rebounding battle, shooting a high percentage and getting to the foul line, Marquette put together its most complete performance of the season in one of its biggest games of the season. As a result, the Golden Eagles remained tied atop the Big East at 9-3 and improved to 18-6 overall.

Pittsburgh has allowed 70 points or more just three times this season. Marquette is responsible for two of the three.

“If I were to say our best performance on the road in Big East play, it would be at Pitt,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said of the teams’ Jan 12 meeting. “I thought our best performance at home in a Big East game would be Pitt.”

The win was Marquette’s 23rd in a row at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the fourth-longest home winning streak in the nation. The crowd of 17,308 was loud, raucous and even deafening at points of the game.

But even before the tip, a sense of urgency and energy was in the air. Golden Eagles assistant coach Brad Autry was out with the team during early warm-ups, encouraging players to get focused and pushing them to perform nearly 25 minutes before tip-off.

Before the team went back into the locker room for final preparations, Autry huddled the players together and gave what appeared to be an animated speech. After losing Monday at Georgetown, Marquette wanted Saturday’s game badly.

“We got another opportunity,” said Marquette guard Vander Blue, who scored a team-high 19 points. “Another nationally televised game, we got a chance to do something special. To sweep Pitt, that probably won’t happen (to them again this year).”

Marquette’s offense was about as efficient as it has been all season in the first half. The Golden Eagles shot 61.5 percent, made all five of their free throws and hit five of eight 3-pointers. Blue hit six of seven first-half shots, including a 3-pointer that capped an 11-2 run and gave Marquette a 42-29 lead heading into the locker room.

“I just wanted to make sure I was mentally and physically there,” Blue said. “Just give us the boost of energy we needed to win. I was just thinking take what’s given to me, don’t force anything and play with unbelievable energy.”

As Pittsburgh (20-6, 8-5) made mini-runs in the second half to cut into Marquette’s lead, the Golden Eagles had an answer each and every time. The Panthers shot near 60 percent for a good chunk of the second half, yet Marquette’s lead didn’t slip below double digits until the game’s final minute.

Statistically speaking, Pittsburgh is arguably the most complete team in the Big East. It does almost everything well. The Panthers are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, yet Marquette found a way to outrebound them by nine.

On paper, Pittsburgh should be better than Marquette. But on paper, a lot of teams should be better than the Golden Eagles. Picked seventh in the Big East, Marquette can legitimately start thinking about a conference championship with six games left in the regular season.

“A lot of people doubted me and this team, and we’re starting to prove people wrong,” Blue said. “I know how we worked this summer. Not just me, everybody. We knew that it would all pay off. That’s why every year we are where we are, because we do things other teams don’t do. And it helps us in times like this, in February when people’s legs and body are beat up.”

Williams challenged his team to take the same approach coming off this win as it did after losing to Georgetown.

“That’s really hard because I want to be really excited, and I want to dance in the locker room, but I can’t,” Williams said. “Because then I won’t work tomorrow, and if we don’t work tomorrow and we don’t find a way to beat Seton Hall (Tuesday), then we lost the impact of what this positive work was.

“From a program selfishness standpoint, can we be tough enough that over the next 29 days, can we exhaust every opportunity to improve? Exhaust every opportunity to see where we are at, at the end? And along the way never become satisfied with where we are at?”

That approach explains why Marquette is tied for first place with less than a month until Selection Sunday, and it’s why the Golden Eagles are usually in pretty good position when the NCAA bids roll in.

“Are you tough enough to wake up early before everybody else and do it again tomorrow?” Williams said. “Or are you going to sleep in because you won and relax? Or are you going to sleep in because you aren’t tough enough because you got your (butt) beat? That’s miserable.”

Lately, there haven’t been too many of those mornings for the Golden Eagles.

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