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Marquette survives St. John's to open Big East tourney

Mar 8, 2007 - 7:03 AM NEW YORK (Ticker) -- Dan Fitzgerald and Marquette made St. John's return to the Big East Tournament a short one.

Fitzgerald scored a career-high 20 points and the 19th-ranked Golden Eagles advanced with a 76-67 victory over the Red Storm in a first-round matchup.

St. John's (16-15) was back in the tournament after failing to qualify in each of the past three seasons. The 11th-seeded Red Storm hung around but could not overcome the loss of senior Lamont Hamilton.

The Red Storm's leading scorer and rebounded, Hamilton injured his knee in Sunday's game against Providence.

Marquette (24-8) was also missing one of its leaders as sophomore guard Jerel McNeal, a second-team All-Big East selection who averages 14.7 points and 4.8 rebounds, missed the game with a thumb injury.

""We obviously miss Jerel, no question about that," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "He's one of our two leading scorers, he's an attack guy, steals, you name it, he gets it done. But our team is growing."

Fitzgerald picked up the slack for McNeal, shooting 6-of-10 from the field, including 4-of-8 form the arc. Wesley Matthews scored 15 points for Marquette, which moves on to face third-seeded Pittsburgh on Thursday.

"We knew when he was out that everybody had to step up," Fitzgerald said. "We got nine guys that are playing and I think everybody is stepping up and doing a little more than what we normally do and we have to win."

Anthony Mason, Jr. scored 19 points and Aaron Spears had 18 for St. John's.

"I thought the experience was great. I really enjoyed it," St. John's coach Norm Roberts said. "It's probably the most fun I had coaching at St. John's to tell you the truth - with the pressure of the game and the atmosphere was awesome."

Marquette won both regular-season meetings with Pittsburgh, including a 75-71 victory on Saturday.

"We know they are very good and they have been great games with them, every one of them," Crean said. "We have a lot of respect for what they do, how hard they play defensively and their execution offensively. They have certainly in Aaron Gray one of the most legitimate post-up players in all of America."

While Crean knows the Golden Eagles will have their hands full with the Panthers, he was unsure if they will have the services of McNeal. "It's still day-to-day," Crean said. "If you went and asked him, he would be planning to play tomorrow night. We are evaluating that every day."