MILWAUKEE — For the majority of the past two weeks, Jake Thomas has been getting to the gym at 5:15 in the morning at the encouragement of graduate manager Lyle Wolf. His goal? Make 500 shots before Marquette started practice. It was a proposition the senior guard said he simply couldn’t refuse.
Thomas saw the fruits of his labor Saturday afternoon, knocking down six 3-pointers and scoring a team-high 18 points in Marquette’s big 81-72 victory over Xavier in front of 18,644 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
"It is nice," Thomas said of seeing his work pay off. "You just always have to be aggressive as a shooter. You can’t let people get in your head, you can’t let the last shot get in your head. I’m starting to get back to that."
Whenever the Musketeers inched close, Thomas seemed to have an answer. He entered Saturday hitting just 33.8 percent of his field goals and 36.4 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Thomas can be a real threat for Marquette when he shoots with confidence, but he had made only two of his last 10 3-point attempts.
He noticed he was missing left and right lately, something he says he usually doesn’t do. That’s where he focused his efforts with the extra shots.
Thomas’ six made 3-pointers were the most he’s connected on since transferring to Marquette, as were the 18 points.
There’s something about Xavier that brings out the best in him, as he’s averaged 17.5 points per game and hit 11 of 21 shots from beyond the arc in the two games against the Musketeers.
"Jake Thomas hits more shots against us — he takes shots against us that he doesn’t take on film," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "I haven’t been in this league long, but I’m so glad he’s a senior. He passes up shots he takes against us, and they go in.
"Give him credit. We had a lot of respect the way he treated us the first game but still weren’t able to keep him under wraps."
Marquette coach Buzz Williams felt guards Derrick Wilson and Todd Mayo did an excellent job setting up Thomas, creating space both in the halfcourt and in transition for the shooter to get good looks.
"They faceguard Jake and the team we play Wednesday will faceguard him and the team we play Saturday will faceguard him," Williams said. "He’s used to that. But whether you can shoot or you can’t shoot, you have to have space.
"Wherever Jake is, if he’s being faceguarded in transition, if we can get Jake all the way down the floor, now that gives us space. There’s literally a sequence to what we are trying to accomplish and I think we were able to execute that as good as we have all year. We did it even on made baskets when they were pressuring us."
Xavier scored five quick points to start the second half, cutting Marquette’s 10-point lead down to 39-34. After a timeout, Thomas didn’t hesitate and drilled a triple from the wing to thwart what could have been a momentum swing.
Thomas hit another big 3-pointer to put the Golden Eagles up, 50-39, and drilled his sixth triple of the night with 10:28 left, extending Marquette’s lead to 62-54. Not many players have been as heavily scrutinized this season as Thomas, a one-time walk-on that probably has had to play more than even he could have expected.
Saturday afternoon was the Racine, Wis., native’s chance to shine in what was as close to a must-win game for Marquette as there is or will be.
"You can say what you want to say about Jake," Williams said. "If I had some pom poms I’d jump up and down for that kid."
Forcing turnovers: The other big key to Marquette’s victory was its ability to force turnovers, allowing the Golden Eagles to get out in transition.
Marquette forced Xavier to turn the ball over 19 times, well over the Musketeers’ season average of 12. The Golden Eagles had 10 steals, six of them coming from Derrick Wilson.
Mack felt Marquette’s pressure defense rattled and "unnerved" Xavier, especially in the first half.
"There were two teams out there playing," Mack said. "One of them is out there turning someone over and the other is turning it over. We knew coming in that taking care of the ball was a big concern of ours, but give Marquette credit. They did a great job.
‘To me that was the difference in the game. You can’t go on the road and have 19 turnovers against a team that’s starting to play its best basketball of the year and expect to win."
On the other side, Marquette turned the ball over just five times, it’s second fewest number of giveaways this season. The turnover differential allowed the Golden Eagles to overcome a variety of statistics in Xavier’s favor.
The Musketeers shot 54.2 percent from the field and grabbed offensive rebounds on 16 of their 22 missed shots. Marquette had just nine defensive rebounds and was beaten on the glass, 32-20.
"We made turnovers in probably every way you can," Mack said. "The biggest problem was they weren’t dead-ball turnovers.
"We couldn’t get out of our way in the first half. I had that overwhelming feeling — we couldn’t get the ball entered and when we did we got it slapped out of our hands."
Marquette also held Semaj Christon, Xavier’s leading scorer, to just 10 points. Christon torched the Golden Eagles for 28 points in the teams’ first meeting in Cincinnati, but the pressure defense forced him to cough it up five times Saturday.
"You can’t stop an early-entry pro with one guy," Williams said. "You can’t. How we function is all based team-specific. I thought our team did a really good job defensively. They shot 59 percent, I understand that. There were 19 times we also got the ball and they didn’t get a shot."