MILWAUKEE — Talent-wise, Marquette doesn’t belong in the same building as Syracuse.
But as the Golden Eagles know all too well, talent alone doesn’t win in college basketball.
With contributions from up and down its roster, a dominating performance from Davante Gardner and a trace of the home court magic Marquette has begun to make tradition, the Golden Eagles were able to overtake yet another team that’s better on paper.
When the clock at the BMO Harris Bradley Center clock struck zero, Marquette walked off with its 24th straight home victory, keeping hope alive for its first Big East title with a 74-71 win over No. 12 Syracuse.
“I look over there at their guys and think, are we even in the same league?” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “They may not lose again. They are really, really good.”
The stat sheet will read Gardner scored a career-high 26 points, but Marquette doesn’t win Monday without contributions from many, including a lift from a seldom-used reserve guard.
Jake Thomas hadn’t made a shot since Dec. 22. But with Marquette struggling mightily with Syracuse’s zone, Williams turned to him, looking for somebody just to take the lid off the basket. Marquette endured a stretch of nearly eight minutes in which it didn’t score a single point.
Just when the Golden Eagles looked like they would be run out of the gym, Thomas’ four-point play keyed a 13-5 run to end the first half, cutting Syracuse’s lead to 32-29 at the break.
Freshman Steve Taylor, Jr. gave Marquette 16 big minutes, collecting four rebounds and three steals and playing a huge role in the 19-4 run the Golden Eagles used to turn a seven-point deficit into a nine-point lead with 1:30 to go. In that same stretch, sophomore guard Todd Mayo hit two 3-pointers.
The Golden Eagles needed these unheralded performances because their star was off his game. Vander Blue sat for most of the deciding run and had an off night.
“It’s a collection,” Williams said. “It’s a conglomeration.”
Those storylines wouldn’t have existed if Gardner didn’t put together his finest performance as a collegiate. The Syracuse frontline couldn’t contain the powerful forward, as he was a perfect 7 for 7 from the field and 12 of 13 from the foul line.
“There aren’t a lot of big guys down in the post like that,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of Gardner. “I can’t recall a post guy this year (that we’ve played). There just aren’t that many. He’s a good player and he got in good position and made big plays.”
After playing just 11 minutes and scoring two points in Saturday’s loss to Villanova, Gardner was a different animal against the Orange. He played 33 minutes, even starting the second half with fellow big man Chris Otule in a big lineup Williams has gone to just occasionally this season.
“Davante understands space as well as anybody,” Williams said. “Those offensive rebounds he got amidst really talented players were huge. Against their zone he understands where the gap is. He just understands space and he did a really good job.”
With the building as loud as it’s been in a long time, Marquette continued to show great resiliency. Not just in bouncing back from Saturday’s loss at Villanova, but within the game itself. The Orange completely had control of the game twice, only to watch the Golden Eagles ramp up their energy and effort.
Williams showed his team four separate tapes in preparation for Monday’s game. One showed the final media timeout against Syracuse last season in which Marquette unraveled to fall behind by 20 points. The second tape was the first media timeout of the second half where the Golden Eagles cut the deficit to nine.
He proceeded to do the same with the first three minutes of Saturday’s loss to Villanova where they struggled and the final three minutes of the game where they almost pulled off a comeback victory.
Williams then asked what the team noticed. It was all answers about energy and effort.
“I don’t think that it was more than that,” Williams said.
Marquette won the effort game. It beat Syracuse to loose balls, controlled the offensive glass and overcame a gigantic gap in talent in the process.
This shouldn’t be anything new, though. The Golden Eagles have proved time and time again they can find a way to beat just about anybody at home.
Monday night was a fight for survival in the Big East with the loser likely seeing its conference title hopes dashed. Somehow, Marquette is the team left standing, just 1/2 game behind Georgetown with three games to play.
With how this season has gone for the Golden Eagles, it would be no surprise if they found a way to at least win a share of the crown.