MILWAUKEE – Markus Howard was as advertised Saturday against Villanova.
Marquette’s magical junior guard scored any way he wanted – on step-back three-point shots, runners in the lane, or coming from the wing – and confounded multiple Wildcats defenders with change of direction.
Yet the 14th-ranked Wildcats, who rallied from a 15-point early second-half deficit to make the meeting of the two Big East heavyweights a game again, had one last chance in the final 12.8 seconds to defeat the 10th-ranked Golden Eagles and silence most of the 17,856 at Fiserv Forum.
They fell short, however. Caught in a double team under the basket, Phil Booth threw a hurried pass to Jermaine Samuels, whose rushed shot hit the front rim and caromed to the court at the buzzer, giving the Golden Eagles a 66-65 victory and breaking the Cats’ 11-game winning streak.
The Wildcats (19-5, 10-1 Big East) had no answers for Howard, who scored 38 points.
“We tried everything,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “He’s just a great player. We just had no answer. Everything in our book we tried. We even tried zone and he hit a three against the zone.”
Howard’s last two points were free throws that gave the Golden Eagles (20-4, 9-2) a 66-63 lead with 57.1 seconds to play. But it was his fifth turnover of the game, a steal by freshman Saddiq Bey, that provided hope for Villanova.
Booth, who made his final four shots and scored the Cats’ last nine points to finish with a team-high 19, tried to make something happen and couldn’t.
“I drove the lane and saw the big fellow [Marquette’s Ed Morrow] step up and I was looking for my teammates,” Booth said.
Said Wright, “We were running a ball screen trying to put it in Phil’s hands and just let him make a decision at the end. We trust his decisions. I don’t think we gave him great options. I don’t think his teammates spaced out well. We got congested under the rim.
“It’s one of those things – I think they thought he was going to shoot it, so they went to go offensive rebound as opposed to giving him an option. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s all the plays before that that really, I think, affect whether you win or lose.”
For a while, it didn’t appear as if the game would come down to a final possession. The Wildcats made just three of their first 21 three-point attempts, and a 15-3 run sparked by Howard and Sacar Anim put the visitors in a 47-32 hole with 12 minutes, 47 seconds left in the second half.
But the Wildcats, who also got 17 points from Eric Paschall, gradually chipped away.
They scored 10 straight, with Bey accounting for half, to close the gap to five. Then after Marquette got back out to a 53-44 lead, Samuels, who had taken only six shots in his previous five games and hadn’t made a three-point basket since Jan. 18, knocked down a pair of treys in an 11-0 run that put Villanova in front, 55-53, with 6:16 to play.
However, the Golden Eagles, who shot 63.6 percent from the floor in the second half, regained control with an 11-4 stretch to go back up by five. But Booth, who made just one three-point basket and is 4 of 22 from deep in his last three games, scored down the stretch to put Villanova on the brink of victory.
It didn’t happen.
“You lose a game like that, you look at a lot of the little things you could have done better,” Wright said. “But that’s what it is. You’ve got to learn from it. But I’m proud of our guys. I’m proud of Eric and Phil’s leadership and the way the team stuck together. We weren’t making shots and we didn’t let it affect our defense.