MILWAUKEE (AP) – Xavier coach Chris Mack needed only one straightforward statistic to explain his team’s loss at Marquette.
“You can’t go on the road and have 19 turnovers against a team that’s starting to play its best basketball of the year and expect to win,” said Mack. “We knew that coming in, that taking care of the ball was a big concern of ours, but give Marquette a credit, they did a great job. But to me, that was the difference in the game.”
The Golden Eagles converted those turnovers into 27 points and senior guard Jake Thomas scored 18 points on a career-best six 3-pointers to pace Marquette to an 81-72 Big East Conference victory over the Musketeers on Saturday.
Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson each added 16 points for Marquette, (15-10, 7-5 Big East), which has won three consecutive games for the first time this season.
Justin Martin had 20 points for Xavier, 17-8 overall, but also 7-5 in the conference after a 5-1 start. Matt Stainbrook and Myles Davis added 12 points apiece for the Musketeers.
“Marquette’s a tough-nosed, tough-minded team,” said Martin. “They’re scrappy and they get after it. That’s any typical Marquette team. We just – we weren’t ready. We weren’t ready for that pressure. They came out and had us on our heels. So, that’s never good.”
The Golden Eagles used a 10-point run in the first half to open a 19-8 lead. The Musketeers got no closer than six points the rest of the half as Marquette forged a 39-29 lead.
Xavier closed within 59-54 on a 3-pointer by Davis with 11:01 remaining, but Marquette answered with eight straight points to push it to 67-54. Martin’s 3-pointer from the right corner pulled Xavier within 75-71 with 2:06 left, but the Golden Eagles responded with six consecutive free throws.
The Musketeers made 26 of 48 shots for 54.2 percent and held a 32-20 rebounding advantage, including 16 offensive rebounds that they turned into 20 second-chance points, but couldn’t overcome the turnovers.
Marquette also made 24 of 27 free throws, including 10 of 10 by Gardner. The Golden Eagles also had 17 assists on their 24 field goals.
“If you force 19 turnovers, have 24 free-throw makes and you only have five turnovers, you’re probably going to have a chance,” said Marquette coach Buzz Williams.
Junior point guard Derrick Wilson registered a career-high six steals for the Golden Eagles and helped hold sophomore guard Semaj Christon to 10 points. Semaj, who entered the game as the team’s leading scorer at 16.8 points per game, had 28 in Xavier’s 86-79 win over Marquette in early January.
“Derrick can guard anybody under 6-8, 250 pounds. And, in his mind and in his body, he thinks he can guard those guys. I thought he was really good,” Williams said.
Thomas, who was 2 of 10 from beyond the arc in the previous two games, made six of his first seven before missing his final three attempts. His previous career highs were five 3-pointers and 17 points, each of which he matched in Marquette’s earlier loss at Xavier.
“I swear Jake Thomas makes more shots against us, he makes shots that he doesn’t take on film. I haven’t been in this league long, but I’m so glad he’s a senior. He passes up shots he takes against us and they go in,” said Mack. “Give him credit, we had a lot of respect because of the way he treated us the first game. But, we still weren’t able to keep him under wraps.”
Unlike recent years where Marquette has been playing late in the season for tournament seeding, the Golden Eagles now are fighting for a possible tournament bid.
Thomas pointed to a 69-57 overtime loss at Butler in mid-January, a game that Marquette led by 12 in the second half, as a turning point.
“It seems like a long time ago, that Butler game, but ever since then we’ve kind of been back on the right track,” Thomas said. “We’re back to preseason practices right now, going hard every day. Ever since then, we’ve been getting our confidence back. Right now, it’s starting to feel how it was last year.”