Men’s basketball standing its ground

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Following Marquette’s devastating 58-51 loss against then-No.19 Pittsburgh Thursday night, it appeared the Golden Eagles’ NCAA Tournament prospects weakened as their last chance to knock off a ranked opponent slipped through their fingers.

Panthers coach Jamie Dixon didn’t quite see it that way, though.

“They’ve had some guys come up and have senior years that just go beyond expectations,” Dixon said. “It’s a great win against a great team — against an, I think, NCAA tournament team.”

Unfortunately for Marquette, Dixon’s vote won’t count on March 14 when the field of 65 is announced.

Although the Golden Eagles shy away from NCAA Tournament talk, it’s a tough subject to avoid as March approaches.

“I think all of the talk is just that,” coach Buzz Williams said about post-season play. “We’re not good enough to take part in the talk. What we have to do is be good enough to do what we do, and tonight we didn’t do what we did.”

More importantly, the Golden Eagles had to prepare for their upcoming three-game road trip starting at Cincinnati Sunday. Following the disappointing loss at the Bradley Center, senior forward Lazar Hayward was confident the Golden Eagles wouldn’t let it spoil their season.

“It would have been a good win for us, but we lost and we know exactly why we lost,” Hayward said after the loss. “We’re going to hold our heads high and get back to work.”

The loss to Pittsburgh made Sunday’s contest against Cincinnati that much more important. Going into the game, the two schools embodied the two most feared words in college basketball: bubble team.

Prior to the game, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Marquette listed as the 64th team in the tournament out of 65 possible entries. Lunardi had the Bearcats pegged as one of the first four teams left out of the tournament.

With so much at stake, the Fifth Third Arena was on high alert for the NCAA selection committee. As expected, the Bearcats and Golden Eagles clawed at each other all afternoon, looking for the other team to budge. Neither did.

At one point, Marquette rolled off 17 straight points to take a 13-point lead. From there, Cincinnati went on a 21-2 run to close the first half. The second half was a back-and-forth affair as the Bearcats clung to small leads throughout. With 27 seconds remaining and the Golden Eagles trailing by three, Hayward calmly drained a 3-pointer to force overtime.

Hayward then added five more points in overtime to pace the Golden Eagles to a 79-76 victory.

“I think he was 1-of-11 before he made his second shot,” Williams said in an interview with MUTV Sports. “When he shot his 12th shot of the day, he thought it was a basket and our team thought it was a basket.”

With the win, Marquette moved to 17-9 overall and 8-6 in the Big East. But with four games remaining, questions still linger.

Do 20 wins secure an NCAA bid? Do 10 Big East wins earn a tournament lock?

Depending on how the rest of the season pans out, if the Golden Eagles secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, they may be looking back at Hayward’s 3-pointer at Cincinnati as the biggest shot of the year.