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McNeal leads way as Marquette stops two-game skid

MILWAUKEE -- Dominic James figured Marquette (No. 12 ESPN/USA Today, No. 10 AP) might come out a little rusty on offense. That was a trade-off coach Buzz Williams was willing to make.

After watching his team drop two straight games on the road thanks in large part to defensive lapses, Williams had his starters spend entire practices playing defense. The grunt work paid off in a 73-59 victory over St. John's on Saturday.

"We haven't touched a basketball on the offensive end since we got back, and that's no exaggeration," James said.

Marquette (21-4, 10-2 Big East) snapped its two-game skid and forced 24 turnovers along the way, a sign that the Golden Eagles are on their way to rediscovering the intense defense that powered them to nine straight victories to begin conference play.

"I think our guys are much more confident in what we're doing defensively, and we kind of got some mojo back in relation to how we know that we have to play," Williams said.

As the winning streak grew, Williams began to wonder if his team was getting overconfident -- or, as Williams put it, believing they deserved to eat filet mignon when they needed to keep eating hamburgers.

Turnovers certainly were on the menu Saturday, as the total for St. John's (12-13, 3-10) matched a season high.

"We just turned the ball over way too much tonight," St. John's coach Norm Roberts said.

It was a particularly tough night for sophomore point guard Malik Boothe, who had to play 40 minutes for the injury-depleted Red Storm. Boothe, who recently returned after missing nine games because of a thumb injury, committed eight turnovers and shot 2-for-5 from the floor.

Roberts said it was a combination of fatigue and Marquette's defense.

"But you've got to fight through that stuff," Roberts said. "It's a tough league."

And after getting off to a slow start, Marquette's offense eventually came alive. Jerel McNeal scored 20 points, Lazar Hayward scored 18 and James added 14.

It was another big night for McNeal, who was honored before the game for breaking the school's career scoring record in Tuesday's loss at Villanova -- a mark held by former star George Thompson for 40 years. The Golden Eagles also honored Hayward for becoming the 41st 1,000-point scorer in school history.

St. John's tied the game at 24 on a 3-pointer by Horne with 2:55 left in the first half, but Marquette went on an 8-0 run to take a 32-24 lead into halftime.

The Golden Eagles came out of halftime with a 9-2 run, including a pair of scores by Wesley Matthews, a 3-pointer by Hayward and a putback by Dwight Burke after McNeal left an athletic up-and-under layup attempt bouncing on the rim.

Trailing 41-26 after Burke's putback, St. John's rallied to cut Marquette's lead to 10. But the Golden Eagles went on another run, scoring eight straight points beginning with a fast-break layup by Matthews and ending with three straight scores by James -- a fadeaway jumper, a two-handed dunk on a fast break and another jumper to put Marquette up 53-34 with 12:35 remaining.

Marquette shot 56 percent from the floor in the second half, recovering from a disjointed first-half performance that included seven turnovers as the Golden Eagles threw away several fast-break scoring chances.

So Marquette's starters really didn't spend any time working on offense in practice?

"None. None," James said. "From start to finish. I'm glad I had class in the afternoon, because I got out of practice a couple times."

Paris Horne scored 23 for St. John's, which has lost four straight and is dealing with speculation about Roberts' future.

"We learn every game and just take it from there," Horne said. "We're going to get it together. It is just a matter of learning. As long as we stick together and never get down on ourselves and pick each other up game-by-game, we will be a lot better."