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At the Bradley Center in Milwaukee Saturday, the Badgers virtually stopped two veteran Marquette guards.
Too bad there were three.
With Wisconsin leading the No. 25 Golden Eagles by seven points with 17:08 left in the game, one Marquette guard was simply too hot to handle.
His name isn’t Wesley Matthews, who led the team averaging 22 points going into the game.
It wasn’t Dominic James, who scored 20 points in last year’s contest at the Kohl Center.
Instead, it was the Golden Eagles’ third senior guard — Jerel McNeal — who took over the game.
That seven-point lead soon vanished as Marquette coach Buzz Williams set up a double screen for McNeal on seemingly every possession. It sure worked.
McNeal scored 14 straight points for the Golden Eagles, putting a halt to the Badgers’ attempt at a comeback, and effectively giving Marquette its second consecutive win over Wisconsin.
“Offensively, coach put the ball in my hands and I was trying to read their defense and make plays when I could,” McNeal said. “I was trying to do whatever I could to help the team.”
Help the team he did, as McNeal finished the game with 26 points on 10-for-18 shooting, to go along with seven rebounds.
In the first half, the Badgers’ defense forced the sharpshooting Marquette offensive to only 39.1 percent from the field. They even held McNeal to a mere seven points.
But in the second half, Marquette’s athleticism, particularly McNeal’s, was simply too much for Wisconsin’s guards to handle.
“He’s good enough to do that,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said. “He’s a guy on that team that can create things and make a lot of things happen with the ball. At least we were trying to get him to do it in different ways.”
“He was making tough shots,” senior forward Joe Krabbenhoft added. “We were switching off, getting a hand in his face, but he really made some great plays.”
Despite being noticeably undersized, the Golden Eagles outplayed the Badgers defensively in the second half. McNeal credited that, along with a 21-14 rebounding advantage in the second period to his big game.
“Everything that we did tonight, especially for [the second half] of the game, was predicated off us playing unbelievable defense,” McNeal said. “We were getting stops and rebounding and forcing turnovers, giving us a chance to run. That is what our team is all about.”
With four starters averaging double-digit scoring, Marquette had many options on offense. Though McNeal took over the game on Saturday, nearly every starter on the Golden Eagles is capable of having a big game offensively. Following the game, McNeal commented on the team effort that led to the victory.
“It wasn’t just me, it was all five guys on the floor,” McNeal said. “I was just trying to read their defense and make plays. I’m just in a situation where I’m trying to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
The loss dropped the Badgers to 6-2, with both losses coming against ranked teams, including No. 2 Connecticut, which also boasts three guards who score in double digits.
Ryan noticed the discrepancy in athleticism between his team and Marquette, citing the Golden Eagles’ guards’ ability to make plays off the dribble. Furthermore, with the Texas game around the corner, the Badgers will have yet another big task ahead of them, as they will have to defend more elite guards in A.J. Abrams and Damian James.
“James and McNeal are quicker than anybody we have,” he said. “Trevon (Hughes) isn’t far behind … but our sophomores and freshmen just have to keep getting better if we want to compete in the Big Ten.”