Hours after No. 10 Marquette earned a No. 3 seed in the Bracket Preview Show, the Golden Eagles beat No. 14 Villanova 66-65 in Milwaukee thanks to 38 points from Markus Howard and a late defensive stand in the biggest Big East game so far this season.
The Wildcats entered the weekend on an 11-game winning streak and with sole possession of first place following a program-best 10-0 start in conference play but the Golden Eagles are now just one game behind Villanova in the standings. Their committee-recognized resume got one Quadrant 1 win better.
Marquette will have the opportunity to complete the regular season sweep and make up ground in the Big East standings February 27 in Philadelphia.
In what could be categorized as a disappointing season for the Big East overall with eight of its 10 teams below .500 in conference play, the first meeting between the conference’s top two teams didn’t disappoint.
After Villanova guard Collin Gillespie hit a three on the game’s opening possession, Marquette controlled the game for roughly 30 minutes with its lead peaking at 15 points on a jumper by Sacar Anim with 12:51 to play in the second half.
On an afternoon in which brothers Sam and Joey Hauser, Marquette’s second and third-leading scorers, combined for just four points on 2-of-10 shooting, it was Anim who provided the necessary secondary scoring to Howard’s ever-explosive offensive game. The duo combined for 56 of Marquette’s 66 points.
Howard’s 38 points marked the seventh time this season that he has scored at least 30 in a game, improving his 24.6 scoring average.
Anim added 18 points, including a perfect 6-of-6 shooting performance in the second half. It was the third-highest single-game point total for the junior who showed a diverse offensive game against the third-most efficient defense in Big East play.
He lost a defender with a crossover and hit a mid-range, pull-up jumper that left the players on Marquette’s bench enthusiastically imitating the “shake” Anim showed off on the play.
When Villanova reclaimed the lead with just over six minutes remaining, Anim was pivotal in Marquette preserving the lead for the game’s final five minutes. He made a three from the right wing off an assist from Joey Hauser that put the Golden Eagles ahead 60-56.
When Phil Booth answered with a three on the other end, Anim had an encore with a turnaround, fadeaway jumper.
Booth, who scored a team-high 19 points, endured a 16-minute scoring drought that was broken with the aforementioned three. In the final minutes, he nearly single-handedly willed the Wildcats to what would’ve been classified as a “stolen” road win given how long the Golden Eagles led during the afternoon.
The Wildcats led 5-2 then didn’t regain the lead until Jermaine Samuels hit a three with 6:25 to play, giving Villanova a 55-53 advantage.
After Howard extended Marquette’s lead to five with three minutes left, Booth hit one jumper, then another, to make it a one-point game with 1:36 to play. He scored Villanova’s final nine points but his performance Saturday will be remembered for the game’s final possession that was blundered by the Wildcats.
As Marquette nursed a one-point lead in the final minute, Villanova’s Saddiq Bey used his long wing span to poke the ball away from Howard and dive on it, allowing the Wildcats to call a timeout.
Villanova would have the game’s final possession on the road.
Booth had the ball and a hesitation dribble allowed him to get a step ahead of Anim on the left wing. A path to the rim opened up as Marquette’s Ed Morrow began to slide over in the lane.
Instead of going up for the layup, Booth got trapped under the basket.
He passed the ball back out to Samuels, who got stuck in no man’s land and was stonewalled by Anim.
Samuels frantically threw the ball up to beat the buzzer and his shot fell short off the backboard, causing Marquette’s bench spilled onto the court in celebration as the Golden Eagles rejoiced a win that was absolutely necessary for their Big East regular season title chance.
But Villanova is still the team to beat in the conference.
Prior to tip-off, Saturday’s game was the only one left on Villanova’s schedule in which the Wildcats were projected to be underdogs, according to kenpom.com.
After going 9-4 in non-conference play, Villanova’s play since mid-December has allowed the Wildcats to contend for a top-four seed.
Villanova probably wasn’t far off from also being featured in the Bracket Preview Show with a No. 19 NET ranking and 19-4 record through Friday. The Wildcats, however, are now just 3-3 in Quadrant 1 games with their best win of the season coming against Florida State on a neutral court in November.
They’ll have four more Quadrant 1 opportunities in the regular season with three coming on the road and the one home game coming against Marquette.
Given the gap between the Big East’s top two teams and the rest of the conference, Villanova and Marquette may not lose until they meet again, when there will be major regular season title implications on the line.