BOISE, Idaho -- Marquette was a popular pick as one of the high seeds that could fall in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and the Golden Eagles almost did on Friday. Utah State, a No. 11 seed, held a six-point lead with under five minutes remaining after trailing most of the game, but fifth-seeded Marquette survived 58-57 as their superior athleticism carried them in a tight finish.
Lazar Hayward, an unsung scorer given all the attention paid to Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews, led the Golden Eagles with 26 points and eight rebounds, helping them built a 14-point edge in the first half. He was also one of several Marquette players able to get to the free throw line late in the game, where the Golden Eagles converted on 19 of 23 attempts. "It was a tale of two halves," said Marquette coach Buzz Williams. "We were able to get consecutive stops in the first half and not in the second and that was why it was the game it was." Williams credited Utah State for clawing back after halftime, but lapses by the Golden Eagles on both ends was as much to blame. "We weren't getting after it on the defensive end and that eliminated our easy baskets in transition," said McNeal, who finished with 14 points. "Also, our pace was bad [on offense]. We weren't cutting hard and hitting gaps and playing inside out like we are used to."
1. Marquette really misses Dominic James. This isn't exactly new news, but you can't help but believe that James' energy and defense on Aggies guard Jared Quayle would have made a difference. James, out with a broken foot, sat first chair on the Marquette bench, wearing a black sweat suit trimmed in gold and blue. In the first half, as Marquette built a double-digit lead, the towel hung from his shoulder and during one timeout he stood up with it dangling from his mouth. In the second half, as Utah State closed the gap and then pulled ahead briefly, James used the towel to cover his face. 2. The crowd will be a factor in Boise. Judging by the ratio of Utah State fans to Marquette supporters, the selection committee helped the underdogs by slotting a few of them closer to home than their higher-seeded foes. Portland State, which faces Xavier tonight, will likely get the same boost. 3. Zone defenses give the Golden Eagles trouble. Since James went out, teams have play more zone against Marquette and with great success. On Friday, the Aggies second-half run can be credited, in part, to a switch away from some of the man-to-man they played in the first 20 minutes.
Jared Quayle, Utah State's point guard, should have had a difficult time against the Golden Eagles guards, even without James in the lineup. But he gutted his way to 18 points, a team-high eight rebounds, four assists and only two turnovers (none in the second half). His three-pointer with 5:16 left gave the Aggies a 46-43 lead and he had a chance to push the lead to four with 3:18 remaining but his try from the left corner rimmed out. Considering the athletic defenders Marquette rolled his way, Quayle has no reason to hang his head.
Utah State's play-calling system is unique to say the least. Two assistant coaches (who look a lot alike) hold a stack of placards as thick as the Boise phonebook. In one stack are a series of words and numbers written in red and in the other everything is printed in blue. On a given set, one of the coaches will flip to a page with a term like "Front 5" while the other will display something like "Punch Back." One is a dummy card, and only the players know which is the real call and which is a decoy.
The Golden Eagles get the winner of Missouri/Cornell and they better pray that the Big Red pull off the upset. The stretches of lackadaisical defense and scoring droughts that almost led to the upset Friday will be more costly against the talented Tigers.