After sweating through a pair of edge-of-your-seat comebacks, Marquette’s first Sweet 16 victory in a decade was as straight and smooth as the 15-foot step-back jumper that Vander Blue nailed at the end of the first half.
It helped that the Golden Eagles ran into an out-of-sorts Miami team that, in an echo of its bus ride to the Verizon Center, was able to make as much headway as a frustrated commuter in rush-hour traffic.
Marquette is in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2003, getting there with an emphatic 71-61 win over Miami on Thursday night. The Golden Eagles were never threatened after taking a double-digit lead in the first half, quite the contrast from their rallies that beat Davidson by one and Butler by two earlier in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s fantastic. It feels good not to have to worry about, are you going to lose on a last-second shot or are you going to win on a last-second shot?” said Jamil Wilson, who had 16 points and eight rebounds. “To have a cushion like that, these guys played with tremendous heart, and we did it all game.”
Blue, who made the shot that beat Davidson and led the comeback against Butler, finished with 14 points. He wasn’t Marquette’s leading scorer, but his offensive and defensive energy pushed the Golden Eagles to a big lead early. It’s a good thing he got his buzzer-beater before halftime — for a change, Marquette didn’t need one at the end of the game.
“We’re so used to people not giving us credit. ... That fuels our fire,” Blue said.
The third-seeded Golden Eagles (26-8) will face either top-seeded Indiana or No. 4 seed Syracuse in the East Regional final on Saturday, aiming for a spot in the Final Foul for the first time since the 2003 team lead by current Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. Marquette was knocked out in the round of 16 the past two years.
This one wasn’t hard to decipher. Marquette could shoot; Miami couldn’t. The Hurricanes (29-7) had sentiment on their side, returning to the arena where coach Jim Larranaga led mid-major George Mason to the Final Four seven years ago, but they made just 35 percent of their field goals and missed 18 of 26 3-pointers.
“You ever have days where you’re just out of sync or things just don’t run along smoothly?” Larranaga said. “Almost like our trip over here. Our hotel is a mile and a half, it took us 45 minutes to get here. We had to go on nine different streets, weaving our way in and out of traffic and everything. And that’s the way it seemed on the court. We were trying to find our way and never could. Never could get in rhythm offensively, and defensively. I don’t think we communicated like we have been doing all season long.”
Shane Larkin scored 14 points to lead the No. 2 seed Hurricanes.
Marquette, meanwhile, shot 54 percent, a stark turnaround from its 38 percent rate from the first two games in the tournament. Davante Gardner added 14 points, with 12 coming in the second half when the Golden Eagles were comfortably ahead.
Comfortable being a relative term. Coach Buzz Williams, who relishes the Golden Eagles’ underdog status, hardly seemed to know how to take such an easy win. He didn’t look or sound like a winning coach afterward.
“Because of my path to this point, I do have an edge, and I probably need to have better wisdom as to how to handle that edge,” Williams said. “But it’s really delicate because our edge is why we win.”