MILWAUKEE — Too often nowadays, players simply can’t handle the truth. But Davante Gardner got called out by his coach and used the words as motivation to snap out of a self-admitted slumber.
For the first time in quite some time, Gardner was a force inside and DePaul just couldn’t stop him. The senior scored 21 of his career-high 28 points in the second half to lead Marquette to a 66-56 comeback victory over the Blue Demons at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
"(It motivated him) a little bit because I have been slacking a little bit in practice and stuff," Gardner said. "I think the last two days I think I’ve been practicing good so I think I’m back in my rhythm."
After Buzz Williams said Thursday that Gardner doesn’t work hard enough to be consistent, the Marquette coach started him alongside fellow big man Chris Otule. It was Gardner’s first start since Jan. 28, 2012, but it wasn’t a nod he earned in the eyes of his coach.
Williams needed to find a way to jumpstart Marquette’s stagnant offense and decided to insert Gardner for point guard Derrick Wilson, moving the 6-foot-8 Jamil Wilson to lead guard.
"What I said on Thursday was the truth," Williams said. "I wasn’t picking on Davante. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t told Davante that. I did give him the start even though he hadn’t earned it, and I took it away from Derrick and Derrick had earned it.
"I don’t know, maybe because it’s how I raise our sons, if you are good say you are good. If you are bad, tell them they are bad. Not anybody gets a trophy. I think that’s part of what’s wrong. I guess that’s my personal belief."
For whatever reason, Gardner hasn’t been himself for most of this season. It had become particularly evident over the past four games, in which he had averaged just eight points per game and Marquette’s offense struggled.
Whether Williams intended to motivate his most efficient offensive player or not, Gardner was a different player Saturday.
"Since we’ve come back from Christmas break I’ve been out of it," Gardner said. "I think I’m back in a rhythm to get the season started and get on a winning streak."
Williams feels the reason for what Gardner called being "mentally out of it" is simple.
"Because he hadn’t been working," Williams said. "It’s not psychology. It’s definitely not psychology with Davante."
Picked to be preseason first-team All-Big East, Gardner may have let the hype get to him just a bit too much. He has thrived at being the underdog, much like Williams and the Marquette program. His story is similar to the one currently facing the Golden Eagles.
"When I first got the job, I had an edge to prove that I belonged," Williams said. "When Davante came here, he had an edge to prove he belonged instead of just being the big heavy kid. Nobody even knew who he was. He was just the big heavy kid. Then all of a sudden we start relying on him for baskets."
Everything changes when the chip on the shoulder to prove you are worthy changes over to people expecting big things.
"You don’t realize how eager people are to attack you," Williams said. "I get more texts now over the last 60 days of my career at Marquette about how to coach than I did my previous five years combined. It’s funny how people want to tell me to coach when they never have before. It’s like I have amnesia and I forgot how to coach.
"It’s the same thing with Davante. Davante, those dudes are trying to beat you. They know who you are. You are not the heavy-set, just show up and be the jack-in-the-box when we throw you the ball."
The Golden Eagles trailed 40-30 with 15:27 to play Saturday when they went on a run that flipped the game. Back-to-back 3-pointers from Jake Thomas got Marquette within four and then Gardner took over.
He scored Marquette’s next 10 points to spur a 14-3 run giving the Golden Eagles their first lead of the game at 44-43 with 7:38 left. Gardner didn’t stop there. With Marquette up six with 3:57 left, the big man scored the Golden Eagles’ next seven points to put the game away.
In the end, Williams wasn’t surprised how Gardner responded to a bit of a calling out.
"I don’t think they are shocked with what I say to you guys because it’s what I say to them," Williams said.
"Davante’s mom and dad are the absolute best people ever. I talk to Davante’s mom every 48 hours and when I don’t, she calls and leaves a full-fledged message. All she’s saying is, ‘Coach, you make him as good as he can be as a man.’
"This is not about basketball. Davante, you are going to have to work. Not just Davante, all of us."
Marquette is going to fight to score points all season long even if Gardner plays the way he did Saturday. He’s going to face big men much better on the defensive end than the woefully inept bigs DePaul threw at him.
But one thing is certain. The Davante Gardner that showed up the four games prior to Saturday can’t come out again if the Golden Eagles are going to have any chance of rattling off a good stretch in Big East play.
"We need all of our guys to be consistent, right?" Williams said. "We can’t put it all on Davante. Xavier is going to figure out what they are going to do when Davante catches it, just like DePaul changed what they do when Davante caught it. We all need to be more consistent.
"I hope this ignites some consistency more than it ignites field-goal makes. I hope it ignites consistency because I feel consistency will yield to field-goal makes."