WASHINGTON — After sweating through a pair of edge-of-your-seat comebacks, Marquette’s first Sweet 16 victory in a decade was as straight and smooth as the 15-foot step-back jumper that Vander Blue nailed at the end of the first half.
It helped that the Golden Eagles ran into an out-of-sorts Miami team that, in an echo of its bus ride to the Verizon Center, was able to make as much headway as a frustrated commuter in rush-hour traffic.
Marquette is in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2003, getting there with an emphatic 71-61 win over Miami on Thursday night. The Golden Eagles were never threatened after taking a double-digit lead in the first half, quite the contrast from their rallies that beat Davidson by one and Butler by two earlier in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s fantastic. It feels good not to have to worry about, are you going to lose on a last-second shot or are you going to win on a last-second shot?” said Jamil Wilson, who had 16 points and eight rebounds. “To have a cushion like that, these guys played with tremendous heart, and we did it all game.”
Blue, who made the shot that beat Davidson and led the comeback against Butler, finished with 14 points. He wasn’t Marquette’s leading scorer, but his offensive and defensive energy pushed the Golden Eagles to a big lead early. It’s a good thing he got his buzzer-beater before halftime — for a change, Marquette didn’t need one at the end of the game.
“We’re so used to people not giving us credit. … That fuels our fire,” Blue said.
The third-seeded Golden Eagles (26-8) will face Big East rival Syracuse, the No. 4 seed, in the East Regional final on Saturday, aiming for a spot in the Final Foul for the first time since the 2003 team led by current Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. Marquette was knocked out in the round of 16 the past two years.
“After 3 tries in the sweet 16 we finally figured it out. Congrts,” Wade tweeted after the game.
Syracuse beat top-seeded Indiana 61-50 in the other East Regional semifinal.
This one wasn’t hard to decipher. Marquette could shoot; Miami couldn’t. The Hurricanes (29-7) had sentiment on their side, returning to the arena where coach Jim Larranaga led mid-major George Mason to the Final Four seven years ago, but they made only 35 percent of their field goals and missed 18 of 26 3-pointers.
“You ever have days where you’re just out of sync or things just don’t run along smoothly?” Larranaga said. “Almost like our trip over here. Our hotel is a mile and a half, it took us 45 minutes to get here. We had to go on nine different streets, weaving our way in and out of traffic and everything. And that’s the way it seemed on the court. We were trying to find our way and never could. Never could get in rhythm offensively, and defensively. I don’t think we communicated like we have been doing all season long.”
Shane Larkin scored 14 points to lead the No. 2 seed Hurricanes, whose NCAA run to the round of 16 matched the best in school history.
“I think what we did this year was lay a foundation of what the program could be like,” Larranaga said. “We’re not anywhere near where I would like to be.”
Marquette, meanwhile, shot 54 percent, a stark turnaround from its 38 percent rate from the first two games in the tournament. Davante Gardner added 14 points, with 12 coming in the second half when the Golden Eagles were comfortably ahead.
Comfortable being a relative term. Coach Buzz Williams, who relishes the Golden Eagles’ underdog status, hardly seemed to know how to take such an easy win. He didn’t look or sound like a winning coach afterward.
“Because of my path to this point, I do have an edge, and I probably need to have better wisdom as to how to handle that edge,” Williams said. “But it’s really delicate because our edge is why we win.”
Blue got going when he picked off a pass and converted the steal into a one-handed jam to give Marquette an 8-4 lead. His running one-hander made it 12-4. Blue and Junior Cadougan forced a steal, getting Larkin to commit his second foul in the process.
Blue ended the half with an exclamation point, hitting the jumper just before the horn to give Marquette a 29-16 lead at the break. He drained the shot, strutted backward downcourt, cocked his right arm and gave Wilson a chest bump.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes couldn’t sink anything. They started 2 for 12, including 0 for 6 from 3-point range, and Larkin’s 3-pointer more than 11 minutes into the game was the first Hurricanes field goal scored by anyone other than Kenny Kadji.
In the second half, Blue’s basket with 10:03 to play gave Marquette a 51-30 lead. The Hurricanes, who by then had started to press full court, then put together their best sequence of the night, a 7-0 run that cut the lead to 14 with 8½ minutes left.
But Wilson’s dunk and Gardner’s inside basket stretched the lead back to 18. Gardner became the scene-stealer late, thumping his chest to the Marquette fans after a dunk in the final four minutes.
The Hurricanes played without backup center Reggie Johnson, who had surgery Tuesday for a minor knee injury. Johnson was averaging seven rebounds, but he would have helped only if he could’ve put the ball in the basket.
“There are only two things you have to do in basketball — one, put the ball in the basket, two, stop the other team from putting the ball in the basket. We weren’t able to do either,” Larranaga said.
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