MILWAUKEE — Nothing has come easy for this year’s Marquette basketball team, not even when the Golden Eagles hold a 14-point halftime lead in a building they rarely lose in.
After playing a very good first half on Saturday, Marquette survived a second-half struggle to hold on for a 67-66 victory over Seton Hall at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Closer than it should have been? Probably. But an important win nonetheless for a Golden Eagles team with no room for slip ups. The way in which Marquette held on Saturday was much more of the style of play everyone has become accustomed to under Buzz Williams.
The Marquette coach challenged his team’s toughness after Thursday night’s loss at Xavier and was pleased with how they responded against the Pirates.
"When you take that on the chin down in Cincinnati against Xavier and Coach comes in the locker room and is talking about toughness, that shouldn’t be something he should be talking about," Marquette junior guard Todd Mayo said. "Marquette has been built on toughness. That shouldn’t be something we are talking about in the locker room. It should just show for itself like it did today."
Toughness was needed with Seton Hall on fire from beyond the arc and charging hard late in the second half. Marquette made nine consecutive free throws in the final seven minutes of the game before Jamil Wilson missed one late with the game already decided.
Five of those were hit by Mayo, including three after being bailed out by being fouled while taking a prayer of a 3-pointer with the shot clock running out. That made it 63-54 Marquette with 2:22 to play, but the Pirates wouldn’t go away.
Seton Hall hit two straight shots from distance to close the gap to just three in a matter of 19 seconds. The score stayed the same until the Pirates made another critical mistake.
With Marquette not yet in the bonus, Seton Hall was fouling to get to six team fouls to have that as an option. But with 41 seconds left and 12 seconds still between the shot clock and game clock, Pirates forward Brandon Mobley fouled Wilson in a three-point game.
"It was a mistake," Pirates coach Kevin Willard said. "He said, ‘Coach, my bad.’ He had a brain freeze and that sometimes happens."
Wilson sunk both free throws to put the Golden Eagles up 65-60. Another Seton Hall 3-pointer made it a two-point game when Mayo sunk two more from the charity stripe to make it 67-63 with 21 seconds left.
One free throw miss would have been crucial, as Sterling Gibbs hit what was a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer to make the final score 67-66. Marquette was in a position of needing to make free throws because it couldn’t handle Seton Hall’s full-court press, turning it over three times late.
After fouling out with just five points Thursday, Wilson was able to stay on the floor and recorded his second-career double-double with 16 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. Wilson scored 12 points in the first half to pace Marquette’s 40-26 halftime lead.
"He’s mad at me," Williams said of Wilson. "I just told him as I was walking out, ‘I hope you keep staying mad.’ "
"He’s my boy, and he wants me to be happy with him and I want him to be better. That’s a really good (stat) line. He’s a really good player."
Williams wasn’t the only one to notice a difference in Wilson, as Mayo could also tell something was different about his teammate.
"When Jamil isn’t coaching and he’s being a player, he’s one of the best in the country," Mayo said. "He needs to focus on what he can do. I know he’s a good person when he’s helping everybody, but sometimes I would just leave that up to the coaches to help out all the players. I know he’s a senior and he wants to help out all the time just because of who he is and he has a good heart, but at the end of the day, you have to be a player and just play. Don’t talk. When you need to help, help.
"Today he wasn’t saying anything and people thought something was wrong. I kind of knew it was going to happen."
Mayo, like Wilson, has been inconsistent this season. He scored a game-high 19 points Saturday while taking just six shots. The Golden Eagles are a much better team when those two are at their best, and against Seton Hall, they made up for Davante Gardner scoring just six points and Jake Thomas not scoring.
"I think me and him know, including Davante and a lot of players on our team, we know we’re good players individually, we just have to take the next step up and figure out how to win together," Mayo said.
While it was a struggle in the end, Marquette was pleased with the toughness it displayed to hang on in the end. There’s a big mountain to climb to get back to the NCAA tournament, but this was a baby step up the slope.
"Obviously winning at home is a big key in conference play," Mayo said. "As long as we keep taking care of business winning at home and just keep winning overall, as teams keep losing in conference play, we can work our way up the ladder. I think (Saturday’s win) will help down the stretch."