NEWARK, N.J. - These are heady times for the Marquette men's basketball team.
The Golden Eagles have won seven straight games after holding on for a 73-63 victory over reeling Seton Hall on Wednesday at the Prudential Center.
MU (15-6, 7-3 Big East) hasn't lost since Jan. 1 and it's not like the Golden Eagles are feasting on bottom-feeding teams. The last four victories have been against teams that were ranked in the top 25 polls this month, though Seton Hall (12-7, 3-6) has lost four of five.
With this torrid stretch, MU has jumped into the AP rankings at No. 22 and almost assuredly punched its ticket for the NCAA Tournament. That seemed unfathomable in October when the Golden Eagles were picked to finish ninth in the Big East in Shaka Smart's first season at the school.
BOX SCORE: Marquette 73, Seton Hall 63
"I think when you lose four in a row like we did (before the winning streak), there's some real humility that has to come out of that," Smart said. "We've been able to win some games since then but we're the same team and the same guys.
"Hopefully we've got a little bit better and grown in some areas. I think one thing that our guys have realized is that our anchor has to be defense. And we've done a better job there."
MU is also rolling thanks to second-year forward Justin Lewis, who poured in a college-high 33 points on 11-for-19 shooting against the Pirates. The 6-foot-7 Lewis is looking like the best player in the conference.
"He's taking good shots," Smart said. "And once you take some good shots and get a rhythm, then all of a sudden he gets his pullup going and he's feeling the flow of the game."
Lewis' confidence is soaring since knocking down the winning three-pointer at Villanova on Jan. 19. He is 13 for 22 from beyond the arc over the last three games.
"The whole summer, when I met Shaka, he just embraced work," Lewis said. "And that's what I did over the summer. I got a lot of those reps up."
Lewis also added nine rebounds and six assists. Smart said the play of the game was the pass that Lewis made on a fast break that set up a three-pointer from freshman guard Kam Jones after Seton Hall cut MU's lead to 48-39 in the second half.
Jones has shown he's not afraid to take big shots.
"He does it in practice," Lewis said. "He's on the second group in practice that we face every day and it's kind of tough. I would say he prepares right. I love his confidence and he works hard. All our young guys are great."
It looked like MU was going to thrash the Pirates, who were playing their third game in five days after rescheduling a postponed game with St. John's on Monday.
Golden Eagles center Kur Kuath set the tone with three highlight blocks in the opening minutes. He had six swats in the first half as MU rolled to a 38-21 advantage.
"That was huge," Smart said. "Those blocks are big. When you're playing a team as aggressive as Seton Hall with the way they attack on the dribble, we knew there would be times when they would break the outer core of our defense and we were just going to have to keep playing and get our hands on the basketball."
The Pirates, who were booed by the home fans in the opening 20 minutes, came out with more purpose after halftime. Seton Hall was playing without starting point guard Bryce Aiken, who missed his third straight game with a concussion. Aiken suffered the injury at the end of MU's 73-72 victory on Jan. 15 at Fiserv Forum.
But after Jones' momentum-shifting three, the Golden Eagles pushed the lead up to 61-40 when Lewis threw down a dunk on a fast break.
That gave Lewis a new college high. He scored 23 in the victory over Providence on Jan. 4 that started this hot stretch.
The Pirates had one more push to get within 65-56 with four minutes remaining, but MU's Olivier-Maxence Prosper knocked in a reverse layup with 1:12 left to seal the victory.
"They made some great plays," Smart said. "When you're down, you play with a desperation and aggressiveness that was hard to deal with."
The Golden Eagles will look to keep rolling at Providence (17-2, 7-1) on Saturday. The Friars are also a surprise team, atop the league standings despite picked to finish seventh.
"I can understand why people picked us ninth," Smart said. "We have three returning players from last year. New coach. A bunch of new guys.
"But we're midway through the league and the thing about this conference is that there's seven, eight, nine teams that really, really are dangerous. And whether you play them on your home floor or their home floor, it's going to be a war. Tonight was evidence of that."
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marquette beats Seton Hall, 73-63 for seventh straight victory