Marquette 57, Villanova 54: Justin Lewis takes over down the stretch as the Golden Eagles shock a Big East power

·5 min read
Marquette's Justin Lewis  shoots over Villanova's Brandon Slater on Wednesday night at Finneran Pavilion. Lewis finished with 21 points.
Marquette's Justin Lewis shoots over Villanova's Brandon Slater on Wednesday night at Finneran Pavilion. Lewis finished with 21 points.

VILLANOVA, Pa. – It took Marquette's Justin Lewis just under two minutes to go from under-the-radar talent to college basketball star.

That's what happens when you score seven straight points, including the go-ahead three-pointer, to help your team pull off a headline-grabbing, 57-54 victory over perennial Big East power Villanova like Lewis did on Wednesday night at Finneran Pavilion.

The basketball cognoscenti has known about Lewis. NBA draftniks have long seen the potential in the long-armed, 6-foot-7 forward who boasts an inside-out game. He had already cemented himself in Golden Eagles lore in his fourth game at the school when he hit a tip-in to beat state rival Wisconsin last season.

Box score: Marquette 57, Villanova 54

But Lewis should be in the national consciousness now after scoring 21 points and pulling down seven rebounds to lead the red-hot Golden Eagles (13-6, 5-3 Big East) to their fifth straight victory.

He took over with MU on the ropes at what has been a house of horrors for the Golden Eagles.

"I just wanted to win the game for my team," Lewis said. "So I felt that I just needed to score and that's what I did."

Collin Gillespie gave Villanova a 54-50 lead on a three-point play with 2:19 remaining. It looked like MU was going to lose for the 10th straight time at Villanova's cramped and raucous on-campus arena. The Wildcats' last defeat at Finneran came on Nov. 17, 2018, against Furman, a stretch of 29 games.

But Lewis showed the versatile skill-set that makes him one of the best players in the Big East. He powered his way to two consecutive layups to tie the game.

Then after pulling down a rebound with 36 seconds left to cap a big defensive stand, Lewis told MU point guard Tyler Kolek that he wanted the ball.

The pair fumbled an exchange with Lewis maintaining control of the ball despite almost falling to one knee. He coolly pulled up from the top of the key to drain a three-pointer, with his teammates engulfing him after the Wildcats called a timeout with 11.9 seconds remaining.

"I was just telling him to hit me on the play," Lewis said. "Because I feel as though I can make plays for others and myself."

That's OK with MU coach Shaka Smart, who let his players figure it out on the game's biggest possession.

"Those guys overruled me several times tonight," Smart said. "I've learned over the years that if the players are adamant about doing something, then it makes a lot of sense to let them go do it as opposed to me forcing something else."

MU still needed to make one more stop against Villanova (13-5, 6-2). Justin Moore missed a three-pointer and the Golden Eagles knocked the rebound away before the buzzer sounded to end the Wildcats' six-game winning streak.

Villanova is ranked No. 11 in both the Ferris Mowers coaches and The Associated Press polls.

Smart has guided the Golden Eagles to victories over four top 25 teams in his first season at the school. A lot of that can be marked down to the leap that the 19-year-old Lewis has made, going from 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds last season to 15.3 and 7.7 this season.

"He's grown so much," Smart said. "He deserves a ton of credit. We talked about a week-and-a-half ago. I kind of wrote out his life in six month segments.

"You know, 17 to 17-and-a-half. 17-and-a-half to 18. And so on. What he's done over the last six-month segment, it's just been really, really impressive in that he's applied a lot of the lessons that the positive influences in his life have tried to help him learn.

"It's one thing to listen and learn those. It's another thing to apply them. And he's doing that."

Lewis will get the attention for his takeover, but several others contributed to the Golden Eagles' signature road victory of the season.

Greg Elliott knocked down 4 of 6 three-pointers and finished with 14 points. He is shooting a mind-bending 26 for 50 (52%) from long distance this season.

Elliott's biggest three came after the Wildcats got the home crowd rocking with a 9-0 run for a 45-36 lead with 10:53 remaining. He hit another one at the 3:45 mark that cut Villanova's lead to 51-50 with 3:45 left and set the stage for Lewis' star turn.

"Greg is one of the best shooters in the country," Smart said. "Man, he can really shoot. I was mad at him a couple times for not shooting."

The Golden Eagles' defense was also harassing against a high-flying Villanova offense that beat Butler, 82-42, just three days earlier.

Gillespie's three-point play accounted for the Wildcats' only points in the final 7:32 with MU also forcing three turnovers in that stretch.

"We have to be willing to be gritty and tough," Smart said. "Violent even. And get stops. Kur Kuath deserves a lot of credit for the way he defended the basket and the paint down the stretch. He was a big part of us getting those stops late."

Lewis is from Baltimore and had a large contingent of supporters in the stands.

"I had a lot of people here," Lewis said. "It's not far from back home and it's great to see my family and it just makes me feel more comfortable."

A lot more people will be watching Lewis after Wednesday's performance.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marquette beats Villanova 57-54 at Finneran Pavilion