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Mature win for Marquette

March 21, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The last couple of years, Marquette might have lost a game like this. As the clock ticked down and their lead dwindled, the Golden Eagles might have fallen apart.

"Guys would have stopped talking," guard Jerel McNeal said. "Guys would have started hanging their heads a little bit."

But this is a team that learned from quick exits in the last two NCAA tournaments, a team that showed maturity by holding off Kentucky, 74-66, in a first-round South Regional game at the Honda Center on Thursday.

Marquette now advances to the second round against Stanford because of its poise in the face of a desperate charge by Kentucky's duo of Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley.

Though everyone in the arena knew Crawford and Bradley would shoot the ball, the seniors scored 54 of their team's 66 points, including a string of three-point baskets that closed the gap to a basket in the final seconds.

"They were so clutch," Kentucky Coach Billy Gillispie said. "It was amazing."

A season's worth of injuries had whittled Kentucky (18-13) down to a two-man team, so Marquette came into the game determined to pressure Crawford and Bradley. Still, the pair kept the game close through the first half.

Marquette answered with a balanced offense led by upperclassmen who have grown since losing first-round tournament games to Alabama and Michigan State the last two seasons.

This time, the 25th-ranked Golden Eagles (25-9) continually attacked the basket and got scoring from nine players. McNeal had a team-high 20 points. Lazar Hayward and Dominic James contributed 16 and 15, respectively.

"We wanted to put ourselves in positions to drive the ball, get to the free-throw line," Coach Tom Crean said.

The strategy worked as the Golden Eagles held a 29-17 advantage in free throws. They also handled the ball well, committing only seven turnovers.

"I think that was key," Bradley said. "They rely on their guards."

Marquette appeared to gain control with about 10 minutes remaining when Bradley picked up his fourth foul. The lead soon stretched to 11 points, but then Crawford heated up, scoring six straight points on his way to a game-high 35.

"He kept us in it the whole game," Bradley said. "Sometimes when I thought there was no way he could make the shot, he knocked them down."

In the end, two good players could not keep pace with Marquette's depth. Kentucky was forced to foul and Wesley Matthews made a series of free throws. With three seconds remaining, Crawford fouled out and James followed him to the Kentucky bench.

"Good game," James said. "Keep your head up."

It was a nice gesture from a mature player, a player who has learned how to win.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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