The start of 2012 was a bit kinder to the Marquette Golden Eagles than the end of 2011. After a 17-point home loss to Vanderbilt on Thursday, Marquette (12-2) rang in the New Year with an 81-77 Big East opening victory over Villanova in front of 14,550 sleepy fans at the Bradley Center.
Darius Johnson-Odom led all scorers with 24 points (18 first half) and Davante Gardner added 13 points and 10 rebounds. For the Golden Eagles, the challenge Sunday was putting their performance against Vanderbilt behind them.
“You’re not going to win if you’re not the hardest playing team,” said Marquette coach Buzz Williams, whose Golden Eagles won their fourth Big East opener in their last five tries. “That’s what we have been built to be. And we were not that on Thursday (against Vandy).
“I don’t think you’ll see another game like that from them again,” added Nova coach Jay Wright, whose team fell to 0-2 in the Big East. “It (Thursday) looked like an aberration to me. They are a good team, a real good team.”
Marquette never trailed the Wildcats (7-7), beginning on their first possession with an emphatic alley-oop and dunk from Vander Blue to Odom. From there, Marquette knocked down four first half threes and built a lead of 11 points on four separate occasions. But it was the consistent effort and energy that was lacking against Vandy that propelled Marquette to the early lead.
“Our guys’ response from the debacle on Thursday was outstanding,” said Williams. “I thought we played with great energy and we had purpose in what we were doing offensively and defensively- pleased from top to bottom.”
Villanova whittled the lead to 40-37 at halftime before Marquette jumped the Wildcats to begin the second half. MU opened the frame on with a 11-2 spurt capped by a fall-away jumper by Johnson-Odom that opened up a double digit lead for the Golden Eagles. On the defensive side, Marquette forced three Wildcat turnovers during the run and 17 total for the game.
“They (Marquette) just came out of halftime really committed,” remarked Wright. “That jump at the half was just a little too much to overcome. “
Still absent from Marquette was 6-11 big man Chris Otule, who by most accounts, will probably miss most of, if not all, of the 2011-2 season with a knee injury. His replacements did just fine, with Jamil Wilson adding 11 points to Gardner’s production. But as Williams noted, it wasn’t necessarily their contributions offensively that contributed to the win, but their energy on defense.
“I thought Jae Crowder, Devante, and Jamil were all superb in their ball screen coverage’s on their big guys. I was pleased with those guys, in particular, for how they responded today.”
But no one was bigger for the Golden Eagles than Johnson-Odom, who rebounded from Thursday’s season low 12-point performance to carry MU once again. And if there was anything Buzz Williams was happy about Sunday, it was the play of his senior guard.
“He played for other guys on our team today. The ball never stuck in his hands, and I thought he was as good as he has been in a long, long time defensively.”
With Vanderbilt and now Villanova aside, Marquette travels to #12 Georgetown and #1 Syracuse to open a stretch of four ranked teams in five games.