MILWAUKEE - The bell sounded yesterday for Villanova to step up its play against a Big East opponent, but Marquette met the challenge with three experienced guards who made the teams' conference opener a rocky one for the Wildcats.

The Golden Eagles' senior trio of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James controlled the second half, repelled a 'Nova rally, and helped their team to a 79-72 victory over the 15th-ranked Wildcats at the Bradley Center.

The Cats (12-2) couldn't quite figure out how to defend the guards. If they pressed up to protect against a three-point shot, the guards drove by them. If they sagged to prevent the drive, the guards pulled up for a three-ball.

The unranked Golden Eagles (12-2) finished 10 of 24 from the beyond the arc. The trio combined for 60 points: 24 for McNeal, 19 for Matthews (son of former 76ers guard Wes Matthews), and 17 for James.

"If you weren't playing against them, they're actually fun to watch," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

"They just controlled the game. You've got to have studs that can guard each of them one on one, and I don't know if anybody does. They do a great job of sharing the ball."

Other than Dante Cunningham, who scored 16 points, the Villanova seniors did not distinguish themselves. Junior Scottie Reynolds, despite 15 points, shot 6 of 15 from the field; committed four turnovers, including three on offensive fouls; and fouled out in the final minute.

"As a senior class, we have to step it up even more," Cunningham said. "It starts with us on the court always. We're the first to set the tone. If something goes wrong, we have to look at ourselves and see what happened."

The Wildcats had spurts of good play but were just shaky enough at both ends to lose their third consecutive Big East opener, all on the road.

Villanova allowed a season high for points while Marquette hit 46 percent of its field-goal attempts, the second-best percentage by a Villanova opponent.

Offensively, three starters contributed little. Forward Antonio Pena played just seven minutes and went scoreless, and guard Reggie Redding did not have a field goal. Corey Stokes scored 10 points, but five after the game had been decided.

"I think we have to play more solid offense," Wright said. "I thought in the first half our 10 turnovers made a difference, because I thought we played well enough on defense to have the lead. We've got to get better at getting Dante the ball more, and we have to keep Antonio in the game."

Cunningham took 11 shots, making six, but probably could have done more against Marquette's unheralded front line if he had gotten more touches.

"Our whole focus in practice the last couple of days was working hard to limit his touches, prevent him from catching the ball deep in the post," McNeal said.

Sophomore Corey Fisher came off the bench and made a major contribution for the second straight game, leading Villanova with 21 points.

The Wildcats trailed by nine early in the second half, but a three-point play by Fisher with 10 minutes, 6 seconds to play gave them a 50-49 lead. Cunningham's follow-up basket four minutes later kept the visitors in range at 59-58, but Villanova scored only three points - all free throws - in the next five minutes.

The Golden Eagles reestablished control with a 7-0 run - two baskets by Matthews and a McNeal three-pointer - that made it 66-58 with 3:57 to play. Marquette scored its last 13 points at the free-throw line.

Playing a game outside the Philadelphia area for the first time this season, the Wildcats might have been rattled by the enthusiastic crowd of 16,446. But Wright said Marquette's three guards on the court, not the thousands in the crowd, were what hurt.

In the meantime, the team's focus has to be on moving ahead.

"It's going to be a long season in the Big East," Wright said. "You can't let one loss turn into two in this league. You've got to recover right away and get ready for the next game."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano
at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.