Saddened but not all that surprised, Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski reduced Thursday night’s loss to its simplest form: Xavier was just better.
Xavier was better the first time they faced the Golden Eagles, the second, and — in more emphatic fashion Thursday night — the third, earning a 90-72 victory that sent the Musketeers to the Big East semifinals.
“Xavier is the real deal,” he said. “They’re really talented and they’re really well-coached and those kids played their butts off, and I admire the team they have.”
Those are strong, bolstering words for a Xavier team that in recent years has been known more as a spoiler than a champion, but in their well-balanced win over No. 7 Marquette, the Musketeers showcased that their strengths have longevity.
They defeated Marquette by eight points twice in the regular season and, with both teams’ tricks firmly on the table, No. 2 Xavier dominated thoroughly, nursing a lead of nearly 20 points for most of the second half at Madison Square Garden.
It was the highest point total for Xavier in a Big East Tournament win.
Trevon Bluiett led all scorers with 24 points, a record for any Musketeer in the Big East Tournament. James Farr and J.P. Macura added 12 points each and Edmond Sumner had 10 points and seven assists.
Jajuan Johnson led Marquette with 19 points. Xavier wasn’t quite able to neutralize freshman Henry Ellenson, who had 14 points.
Xavier hit 11 of 26 three-pointers and while Marquette, stuffed inside by the Musketeers’ two big men, went 3-for-18 from downtown. The Musketeers kept their hopes alive for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“We kind of straightaway playing hard defensively,” Bluiett said. “We made it a point to get back to how we’ve been defending from the beginning of the year.”
Marquette never led and was down by 16 at the half. The Golden Eagles shot 34.4 percent in the first half and 41.9 overall and was outscored 42-32 in the paint.
Xavier coach Chris Mack said “there are no secrets” after playing each other twice before: “You know who likes to do what . . . They’re a driving team. They get to the rim extremely well . . . We made Marquette work a little bit harder defensively.”
The Musketeers (27-4) forced nine turnovers for 15 points and Bluiett had 10 points by the break. Marquette drew to within five with 5:24 left in the first half but didn’t get any closer as Xavier erupted for a 13-0 run.
“It’s satisfying, but it really doesn’t mean anything now because we’ve got another game in 24 hours,” Bluiett said. “My teammates set me up to get me perfect looks, and when a couple went in, they just kept finding me.”
But perhaps the greatest credit to Xavier could come from its opponent. Wojciechowski made a point of underlining that the Musketeers were the real deal — a team that could ostensibly rise to the top of the heap.
“I feel we didn’t play as hard as we could. That’s the most important thing for me,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re better than us.”