MILWAUKEE — It didn’t take long for the depth, or lack thereof, of the Marquette Golden Eagles to be tested.
Playing with just nine eligible players for the first part of the regular season, Marquette was down to eight following an injury to Derrick Wilson. Further testing the depth, four Golden Eagles finished with four fouls.
Marquette used only six players for almost the entire second half but pulled away for a 79-63 victory over Tennessee-Martin in the season opener Friday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
"I’m happy about the way our guys played tonight," Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. "Obviously we’re a team that’s trying to find our identity, but I thought our guys played really hard tonight on the defensive end, especially in the midst of some adversity with the injury to Derrick and some significant foul trouble. We hung tough."
Friday’s opener ushered in a new era for Marquette. Not only was it Wojciechowski’s first game as head coach, but the entire starting five was different from the last time the Golden Eagles took the court.
While Sandy Cohen III became the first freshman to start his first game for Marquette since Vander Blue in 2010, a pair of role players from last year’s version of the Golden Eagles led the way against the Skyhawks.
Sophomore guard Jajuan Johnson scored a career-high 20 points with four rebounds, four steals and two blocks, while senior forward Juan Anderson notched a career-high 16 points with seven rebounds and four steals.
"I thought J.J. was the player of the game," Wojciechowski said. "He was terrific on both ends of the floor. When we needed big baskets, he came up with them. He was all over the place defensively. He really played like a veteran. That’s a real tribute to the kid.
"We have a team right now where we’re asking every kid on the team to learn a role they have no experience with. We’re very inexperienced. For a kid like J.J. to come through with a game like that in a big game is terrific."
After a back-and-forth start to the game, Marquette used a 22-5 run midway through the first half to take a 35-21 lead on a Duane Wilson layup with 3:39 left in the first half.
UT-Martin cut Marquette’s advantage to 38-30 at the break, but Anderson scored the first five points of the second half to surpass his previous career high of 11 with 18:44 to play.
"As a senior, I have to do those things," Anderson said. "We have a lot of young guys, so I tried to keep up the energy by getting to the hole and to the free-throw line. Those things can change the momentum of the game."
After scoring 10 points in the first half, Deonte Burton committed two fouls in the span of 57 seconds in the second half and had to sit at the 13:52 mark with four fouls. He ended up not returning to the game, finishing with 12 minutes played.
Derrick Wilson didn’t play at all in the second half, while John Dawson’s only playing time came in the first half.
That left Marquette with a six-man rotation over the final 20 minutes. The Golden Eagles used an 8-0 run to lead 61-42 with 10:25 to play, but UT-Martin answered with a 6-0 spurt of its own to get back into the game.
"Every time they made a run, I think that we were able to bounce back," UT-Martin first-year coach Heath Schroyer said. "I don’t think we got knocked out, if you will."
Part of the reason Marquette struggled to deliver the knockout blow was its inability to keep UT-Martin off the offensive glass. The Skyhawks finished with 12 offensive rebounds and outrebounded the Golden Eagles, 34-25.
With 6-foot-7 Steve Taylor Jr. as the only eligible player over 6-6 until Dec. 14, rebounding will continue to be a concern for Marquette.
"We have to be a better defensive rebounding team, for sure," Wojciechowski said. "I thought our first-shot defense was good. We forced them into tough shots. But when we gave up second shots it really hurt our defense. And then when we fouled when we got in the bonus."
UT-Martin only converted its 12 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points, whereas a team like Ohio State — Marquette’s next opponent — will make the Golden Eagles pay for that many second-shot opportunities.
"As everybody knows and everybody talks about, we’re a lot smaller than a lot of teams," Anderson said. "We have to emphasize that every game. We can’t let teams outrebound us. That team isn’t as big as teams we’re going to see in the future, such as Wisconsin or Ohio State on Tuesday."
Marquette did some positive things offensively Friday, finishing with 19 assists on 27 made field goals. The Golden Eagles turned the ball over just seven times and forced UT-Martin into 19 turnovers.
Led by Johnson’s 6 of 9 night from the field, Marquette shot 48.2 percent and hit 10 of its 23 3-point attempts. The Golden Eagles made 10 or more 3-pointers just once last season, connecting on 11 at Xavier on Jan. 9.
"Seemingly every time we made the extra pass on offense we were able to get a good shot and knock it down," Wojciechowski said.
The level of competition quickly jumps up a level for Marquette with a trip to Columbus to face the Buckeyes on Tuesday. No. 20 Ohio State opened its season Friday with a 92-55 victory over Massachusetts-Lowell.
"It is not midnight yet, so we’re going to celebrate this win until midnight," Anderson said. "Then we’ll worry about Ohio State tomorrow."
Wilson exits: After playing 13 minutes in the first half, senior guard Derrick Wilson didn’t play in the second half Friday with what Wojciechowski called a lower-leg injury.
"We still have to find out more about it," Wojciechowski said. "Obviously Derrick is a very important part of this team. He’s really the only guy who has played significant minutes on our entire roster. He’s a good player. Not having him is difficult. Hopefully his injury is not anything of significance."
Wojciechowski said at his media availability Wednesday that Derrick Wilson and Duane Wilson were banged up. Duane Wilson ended up playing 25 minutes Friday, scoring six points with four assists and no turnovers in his Marquette debut.