Though Marquette has already clinched just its third losing conference season in school history and is four games under .500 for the first time since 1990-91, solid efforts like Saturday's could prove beneficial down the road.
MILWAUKEE — How short-handed were the Marquette Golden Eagles on Saturday afternoon?
Well, someone who began the year as a manager with the women’s basketball team was forced to enter the game after two of Marquette’s six available scholarship players fouled out.
Despite being down two senior starters, Marquette put forth a valiant effort against one of the nation’s best teams before falling, 87-76, to No. 6 Villanova in front of 17,961 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
"Villanova is a terrific team," Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. "They are a team that can make it to the Final Four. They have experience and they are really well coached. They are really good. I thought our guys fought.
"I’m proud of my guys. I’m proud of them. Six guys. Two guys that were missing were guys that played over 30 minutes per game."
Already down leading scorer Matt Carlino for the fourth straight game with a concussion, the Golden Eagles found out Saturday morning that senior forward Juan Anderson wouldn’t be able to play against the Wildcats.
Anderson rolled his ankle during Thursday’s practice, an incident Wojciechowski described as a freak, non-contact injury. He tried to give it a go by participating in pregame warmups but was clearly limited.
"Juan is a competitor," Wojciechowski said. "He wanted to play, but he rolled his ankle pretty good. Juan’s game is based on energy, athleticism and effort. He really would have been dragging that leg around. I don’t want to put him in position to get further hurt."
Marquette was trailing by just two points with 5:21 left in the first half when Villanova rattled off a 12-0 run to grab a 41-27 lead.
The Golden Eagles (11-15 overall, 3-11 Big East) were able to get within nine points at halftime, but Wildcats senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono hit three contested 3-pointers during the first two minutes of the second half to extend Villanova’s lead to 54-38.
"You expect that," Marquette senior guard Derrick Wilson said of Villanova’s spurt. "They do it every game. The only game I watched they didn’t play well was against Georgetown at Georgetown, but since then they’ve been on fire.
"Their guard play is amazing and they also have two good bigs who rebound and finish well. It’s tough. You know they’re going to hit shots like that, but you’ve got to keep on playing and defend the next one better."
This game had all the makings of an ugly one for the Golden Eagles. Villanova entered at 24-2, on its way to its second consecutive Big East regular-season title and in the mix for a one seed in the NCAA tournament.
But each time Villanova (12-2 Big East) appeared ready to pull away, Marquette’s six available scholarship players fought back with a spurt to prevent a blowout.
When sophomore center Luke Fischer became Marquette’s second player to foul out with 29 seconds to play, Wojciechowski was forced to turn to walk-on guard Michael Mache for the first time this season.
Mache and his twin brother, Matthew, began this season as managers for the women’s basketball program.
"They compete, man, they really compete," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I think Wojo’s doing a great job with those guys. They make it tough."
Wright echoed what most Big East coaches have said after beating Marquette this season. The Golden Eagles play hard, but they just don’t have enough talent and manpower to compete in Wojciechowski’s first season.
But as frustrating as this season has become — Marquette has already clinched just its third losing conference season in school history and is four games under .500 for the first time since 1990-91 — efforts like Saturday’s could prove beneficial down the road.
"There are a lot of lessons to be learned," Wojciechowski said. "You look at the starting lineup and see two freshmen and two sophomores with a senior point guard. Look at Villanova and you see just an experienced, veteran team.
"Sometimes you have to go through pain and struggle. If you use it the right way it can make you stronger in the future. Look, I don’t like to lose, but we have to continue to focus on the process and continue to get better."
Beginning Wednesday at Butler, four regular-season games and the Big East tournament remain for Marquette. The Golden Eagles showed Saturday they are poised to play hard until the bitter end, no matter how short-handed they are.
"Our guys keep fighting, and we will keep fighting," Wojciechowski said. "We’ll keep trying to build on small victories. Hopefully we can put enough of those small victories together to get a big victory."
Something to say: Wojciechowski rarely makes an opening statement before taking questions from the media postgame, but he did so Saturday.
"I just want to thank our fans," Wojciechowski said. "This has been an unpredictable year. With things you can’t predict there has been a constant, and that has been the support of our school, of our student body and of our fan base. It is one thing to watch a place from afar, which I have done for as long as I can remember with Marquette, saying, ‘Man, they have unbelievable support.’
"Today was a great day for our team. We had six guys. We’ve had some tough times, but the school and the people that support the program have never wavered. On behalf of our players and staff, I want to thank all the people who make that a reality."
Marquette is on its way to missing the postseason completely for the second straight year, but 17,961 still came to the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Saturday to support the Golden Eagles.
"This was a great crowd, a great college basketball atmosphere," Wright said. "If they would have come out in the second half and gotten this place going it could have been tough."