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McNeal, Marquette continue perfect league start at Notre Dame

Jan 27, 2009 - 6:40 AM SOUTH BEND, Indiana (Ticker) -- Although he only stands at 6-3, Jerel McNeal is playing like one of the beasts of the Big East.

McNeal scored a season-high 27 points as eighth-ranked Marquette continued its surprising start in conference play Monday, topping No. 22 Notre Dame, 71-64.

Wesley Matthews scored 16 points and Dominic James added 15, nine rebounds and five assists for the Golden Eagles (19-2, 7-0 Big East), who captured their 10th straight win.

Marquette also extended the school's best start to a league schedule, winning its first seven Big East contests. Its previous best start was a 5-0 showing in the Great Midwest Conference in 1992-93.

"The league speaks for itself," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "Whether you play at home or on the road, if your mindset is not right to compete in every possession on both ends of the floor, you are going to get smacked. It is not offense, it's defense, so we spend a lot of time on defense every day trying to figure out how to guard really good players when you are 6-5 and under."

A huge reason for that success has been the play of McNeal, who has averaged 23.6 points in league games. The senior guard followed up a 21-point effort in Saturday's 79-70 win over DePaul by shooting 11-of-23 from the field with three 3-pointers.

A preseason candidate for Big East Player of the Year, Luke Harangody had 29 points and 17 rebounds for the Fighting Irish (12-7, 3-5), who absorbed their second straight loss at home following the end of a 45-game winning streak at the Joyce Center in Saturday's 69-61 setback to Connecticut.

"He's a competitor and made some unbelievable shots and that could've dictated the game and given them the momentum but we stayed poised," James said of Harangody. "We knew he was hitting great shots but we wouldn't let him hit them all night."

It was also the fourth straight loss for Notre Dame, its worst losing streak in three years.

Despite that fact, Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey is not panicking, stating this slump might be a good thing for his team.

"I think it's not bad for them to be smacked around a little bit," he said. "It's been a good life here; they've been on a pretty good run. The seniors really haven't experienced anything like this since their freshman year. And no one on the team has experienced getting smacked four games in a row.

"Now granted, we have played some really good teams. This is not a bad thing to toughen the group up, to see if they can come out of it tougher and understand it. I firmly believe, with this group, that we have a run in us. It's going to be really hard, though, and I think they understand that."

McNeal had 16 points prior to halftime as the Golden Eagles overcame a big start by Harangody to forge a 33-30 lead.

"They have some great players, a lot of quickness, a lot of athleticism," Harangody said of Marquette. "It was a tough matchup. You have to give the credit to them tonight because they're a great team. They came in here to a tough environment and got a win."

Notre Dame came out of break with eight of the first 10 points of the second half, but Marquette later responded with a 7-0 run as neither team could build more than a four-point lead.

Tory Jackson hit a 3-pointer to knot the score at 57-57 for the Fighting Irish with 4:16 remaining. The contest would be tied once more before the Golden Eagles closed the final 3:18 with a 12-5 run.

"We're buying into the idea all for one and one for all," Matthews said. "We're working together and we're mature."

Lazar Hayward converted two free throws with 3:18 to play, snapping a 59-59 tie. Notre Dame's Jackson then over-penetrated, leading to a steal by Maurice Acker and a jumper by Matthews that made it 63-59.

Although Kyle McAlarney was able to make two foul shots for the Irish, McNeal hit a 3-pointer from the left wing with 2:13 remaining to gave Marquette a 66-61 advantage.

Despite finishing 12-of-22 from the floor, Harangody got only a desperation 3-point shot over the final 3 1/2 minutes as he attempted in vain to carry his team for the second straight game.

Jackson had 10 points but shot 4-of-12 from the field for Notre Dame, which shot 36 percent (24-of-66).

"We're not going to win many games scoring 61 and 64 points like we have the past two," Brey said. "We had some empty possessions in the last four minutes that really hurt us. Marquette had veteran guys that made a lot of big plays. It's disappointing, but we're not halfway through the league season yet. We'll come back tomorrow and get back to work."

While Harangody has scored 53 points over the last two games, his teammates have only combined for 72 while shooting 28 percent (27-of-97). Harangody has gone 22-of-45 (49 percent) from the floor, including 3-of-6 on 3-pointers.

McAlarney, the Irish's second-leading scorer, scored just nine points on 3-of-12 shooting against Marquette, his second straight game with nine points. The sharpshooter is just 22 percent (6-of-27) from the field over the last two games, including 4-of-14 from the arc.

"I thought Maurice Acker came in and really harassed (McAlarney) and took him out of the game," Brey said. "He was active, and they were always able to keep a fresh body on him. That's one thing they can do is quickly get out and really defend you.

"It was hard to get clean looks, and I think that's why (Harangody) got a lot of looks inside, 1-on-1, and we kept going to him."