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Depth leads charge

Mathews, McNeal help cover holes

By TODD ROSIAK trosiak@journalsentinel.com

While they certainly don't want to make a habit of playing without Dominic James, the Marquette Golden Eagles continue to show signs they can, indeed, do more than just tread water with their freshman floor general on the bench for extended periods of time. On Wednesday night against Valparaiso it was the two remaining members of MU's Big Three freshmen carrying the load in the absence of James, who spent the final 12 minutes 54 seconds of the first half nursing two personal fouls.

With Wes Matthews driving and dishing and Jerel McNeal again setting the tone defensively, MU was able to continue a game-turning run that ultimately ended in a 69-54 victory for the Golden Eagles in front of an announced crowd of 10,789 at the Bradley Center.

“We have a lot of confidence,” said McNeal, who along with James tied for team scoring honors with 12 points. “We're pretty deep at the guard position and the great thing about all of us is we have a lot of versatility. Somebody just tried to step in and fill the role as good as they could.”

MU (6-2), which next faces Wisconsin in Madison at noon Saturday, also got tremendous production out of its bench - 28 points to Valparaiso's 0, in fact - with eight points each coming from Fitzgerald and Ryan Amoroso and six each from Jamil Lott and Joe Chapman.

All of Amoroso's points came as part of a 19-5 Golden Eagles' run that spanned nearly six minutes midway through the first half and helped put the game out of reach of the Crusaders (3-2).

With MU trailing, 12-3, Amoroso started things off with a three-pointer from the left wing and McNeal added a pair of free throws. James then added a three of his own from the right wing to make it 12-11 but shortly thereafter was whistled for a foul after getting tangled up with 6-foot-11 Valparaiso center Mohamed Kone vying for a rebound.

James went to the bench with 12:54 left but MU kept the run going on its next possession thanks to a monster block and coast-to-coast layup by McNeal that made it a 10-0 run.

The Crusaders sandwiched a layup from Dan Oppland and a three-pointer by ex-MU guard Ron Howard around a pair of Amoroso free throws to take their final lead at 17-15 with 10:45 left, but a jump hook by Lott, two more free throws by McNeal and another three by Amoroso made it 22-17 with 9:29 left and the Golden Eagles never looked back.

MU was in a similar situation last Wednesday in what turned out to be a 10-point loss at Nebraska. After playing poorly in the opening 20 minutes MU made up significant ground in the second half with James on the sideline, watching.

“It's not great sitting on the bench; it's kind of frustrating,” said James. “But it excites me to know my teammates are playing well. They did a great job of extending the lead. If coach is trying to protect me from fouls and the team's doing well, that's fine. I'm willing to sacrifice that.”

The Golden Eagles saw their lead cut to 31-26 with 4:30 left in the first half, but coach Tom Crean resisted the urge to put James back in.

“There were probably 20 times that I thought we should maybe put Dominic back in,” Crean said. “But (assistant) Dan Panaggio made a great point: if you put him back in too early and he gets that third foul then it turns him into a real tentative Dominic in the second half, and we don't really need that. Dominic needs to be aggressive and free-wheeling.”

MU led by as many as 16 points in a second half highlighted by a pair of James dunks.

In the first half, senior Steve Novak accomplished a milestone after hitting a pair of free throws. Those two gave him 201 attempts during his three-plus years at MU, making him the all-time free-throw percentage leader at 92%. Butch Lee was the former record holder at 84.8%.

Novak has also hit 48 straight from the free-throw line dating to Jan. 20 of last season.


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