After sweating through a pair of edge-of-your-seat comebacks in the NCAA Tournament, Blue and the Golden Eagles figured out how to put one away early, earning Marquette’s first trip to the Elite Eight since 2003 with a 71-61 win over Miami on Thursday night in the East Regional.
Blue, who spurred the rallies that beat Davidson by one and Butler by two, finished with 14 points. He wasn’t Marquette’s leading scorer – that was Jamil Wilson with 16 – but it was Blue’s offensive and defensive energy that pushed the Golden Eagles to a double-digit lead in the first half, a spread Miami never came close to making up.
“It’s amazing, man,” Blue said. “Everybody said this team wasn’t any good.”
The third-seeded Golden Eagles (26-8) will face either top-seeded Indiana or No. 4 seed Syracuse in the East Regional final on Saturday, aiming for a spot in the Final Foul for the first time since Dwyane Wade took them there a decade ago.
Wade, the Miami Heat star, tweeted congratulations to coach Jim Larranaga and the Hurricanes – as well as his alma mater.
“Congrts on an amazing season for coach L and the canes...after 3 tries in the sweet 16 we finally figured it out. Congrts,” he posted.
Marquette was knocked out in the Round of 16 the past two years.
The game 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 Larranaga led mid-major George Mason to the Final Four, but they made only 35 percent of their field goals.
“We just shot the ball so poorly,” Larranaga said, also lamenting some injuries that hindered his team’s preparation this week. “When you can’t put the ball in the basket, you really have a hard time staying with a team like Marquette.”
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.
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.
Blue missed his first two shots – pining for a foul after throwing up a clumsy airball on a baseline drive – but he got on the board when he picked off a pass and converted the steal into a one-handed jam to give Marquette an 8-4 lead.
That got him going. A running one-hander made it 12-4. Blue and Junior Cadougan forced a steal, getting Larkin to commit his second foul in the process. The next time Blue missed, Trent Lockett was there to dunk the rebound and put the Golden Eagles up by nine.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes couldn’t sink a shot, from inside or out. Raphael Akpejiori flung a hook that hit so high off the backboard that it looked better suited for a setup toss in a dunk contest. Miami 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.
Even when the Hurricanes ran a play perfectly, the shot wouldn’t fall. Trey McKinney Jones had a nice screen set for him in the final minute of the first half, but his open 15-footer rattled in and out.
Jones’ miss set the stage for Blue to end the half with an exclamation point. He hit a step-back 15-footer 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 as the Golden Eagles headed to the locker room well in control.
Miami shot 21 percent (6 for 29) in the half, and just 9 percent (1 for 11) from beyond the arc.
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 in the closing minutes, 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.
Miami’s loss was similar to its early-season defeat to now-famous Florida Gulf Coast, when the Hurricanes shot 26.7 percent (8 of 30) in the first half and 29.1 percent (16 of 55) for the game.
Officials allowed the game to be physical. Only eight fouls were called in the first half.