Diener back in saddle, leads victorious charge

With a minute to play in the game and Marquette holding a five-point lead over visiting Southern Miss, Travis Diener dribbled to his left and collided head-on with Dameon Mason behind the three-point arc.

Mason remained standing at the scene of the accident and mouthed the word "handoff," but Diener was unfazed. He turned around and seconds later found Ryan Amoroso underneath the basket.

The freshman forward went up strong, made the shot and was fouled. Amoroso made the ensuing free throw and Marquette finally had a lead that was safe.

The botched play epitomized the game for Diener and his team: not everything went perfectly, but together they did just enough to pull out an 81-72 victory.

Diener, playing in his first game since aggravating a stress fracture in his left foot against Charlotte Jan. 22, came off the bench and led Marquette with 17 points. He also recorded a game-high eight assists and turned the ball over only once.

"He made a lot of big plays and for a guy that's been out all of those days it just goes to show how much we missed him," Marquette head coach Tom Crean said.

In Diener's absence, the Golden Eagles struggled mightily. Marquette endured a 47-point drubbing at Louisville, eked out a double overtime win against Saint Louis and got run off the Al McGuire Court by UAB.

The 1-2 stretch dropped Marquette to 3-5 in conference play and made Saturday's contest a must-win if the Golden Eagles wanted to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

"We checked them into a hotel last night here in town. We haven't done that ever with this group, but this was a big game," Crean said. "This was a game we had to get. We had to do things a little different."

Diener was cleared to play around 9 a.m. on game day, according to Crean, but the senior point guard wasn't in the starting lineup.

After sitting on the bench for the game's first seven minutes, Diener made his way to the scorer's table and substituted in between a pair of Dameon Mason free throws, even though he had not practiced with the team in two weeks.

"When I got in I was pretty nervous actually, I've never been this nervous for a game in a long time," Diener said. "Just sitting on that bench made me nervous. I hoped when I got in there that our guys would be energized."

According to classmate and roommate Todd Townsend, Diener's return had the desired effect.

"When your leader is back the juices flow in your body and you get so excited," he said. "I'm just happy for Travis to get back out there and obviously for our team."

Even with Diener on the court, Marquette struggled at times against Southern Miss.

The Golden Eagles from the south, who entered the game with a league worst 1-7 conference record, led at the half, 36-34, thanks in large part to a sizeable advantage on the glass.

Despite not starting anyone taller than 6-6, Southern Miss grabbed seven offensive rebounds and was out-rebounding Marquette, 19-11, at intermission.

Marquette nearly reversed those statistics in the second half, winning the rebounding battle, 19-10, and managed to separate from Southern Miss.

The hometown Golden Eagles built a double-digit lead three times over the final 20 minutes, but the game wasn't secure until Diener assisted on Amoroso's basket with 51 seconds to play and then drained his four attempts from the free throw line.

"When you got him at the end of the game with the ball in his hands you're not going to lose this kind of a game," Southern Miss head coach Larry Eustachy said.

"You see what they do when he's not on that court. You can replace a center, but you can't replace him. As he goes, they go."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 8 2005.