It takes a lot for the 5-foot-10 McGee to get to the rim. But in a senior season dwindling down to precious few games, the decidedly grounded McGee opted to take flight. He slammed home a rare two-handed dunk, the defining moment in No. 6 Louisville's gritty 62-58 victory over Marquette (No. 10 ESPN/USA Today, No. 8 AP) on Sunday.
"I can jump pretty good, but I'm getting old," McGee said with a laugh. "My legs are getting tired."
They didn't look it.
McGee finished with a season-high 16 points in 28 energetic minutes as the Cardinals (23-5, 14-2 Big East) kept their hopes for a conference title alive by suffocating the Golden Eagles (23-6, 12-4), who hung tough despite playing without injured star guard Dominic James.
Louisville survived behind the play of McGee and forward Terrence Williams, who had 14 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
The senior co-captains' heady play helped Louisville keep its composure following a muddled nonconference season. Now the Cardinals are right where they expected to be all along: heading into the final week of the regular season with a shot at the conference title.
"We've been fighting a lot," coach Rick Pitino said. "These teams have to fight a lot and the guys are doing a great job at it."
Louisville wore white throwback uniforms honoring the late-1960s teams of Wes Unseld, and Pitino drew a roar when he walked onto the floor in a flashy white suit, a tip to the school's "white-out" promotion.
Louisville's play wasn't nearly as pretty as Pitino's sartorial choice, but the Cardinals have developed a knack for winning in all sorts of ways. They started their five-game winning streak by pouring in 99 points against DePaul, then took a decidedly more rugged approach to slowing the Big East's highest scoring team.
Wesley Matthews led Marquette with 19 points, but Louisville harassed the Golden Eagles into a season-low 34 percent shooting while holding them to their second-lowest point total of the season.
McNeal, Marquette's leading scorer, managed just 10 points on 3-of-19 shooting, including 2-of-10 3-pointers. Lazar Hayward had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Golden Eagles, but Marquette wore down just enough in the second half to let the Cardinals escape.
"We can play fast and we can play slow," Pitino said. "If we're in a fight with Pittsburgh or Marquette, we can hold our own. If we're in a running game, we can hold our own."
Even if they had to sweat it out a little longer than Pitino would have liked. The teams played a taut first half before Louisville took control with a 13-5 surge sparked by McGee. He hit an acrobatic layup to get Louisville going, later fed center Samardo Samuels for a dunk, then stripped McNeal at midcourt and extended every inch of his 5-10 frame to get up for a rare slam.
Marquette didn't fold, even without James, its senior star who broke his foot during a loss to No. 2 Connecticut last week. James didn't make the trip after having surgery, but had been in constant contact with Williams, offering advice until tipoff.
"He's coaching the team now, he's Coach James," Williams said. "He had some ideas for me."
Even the best ideas couldn't make up for Louisville's distinct size advantage, though Maurice Acker played admirably in place of James. The junior finished with three points, three rebounds and three assists in 33 minutes and used his quickness to disrupt the Cardinals on defense.
Marquette, which has lost two straight, wasn't in the mood to accept a moral victory.
"We should have won, that's how we feel," Matthews said. "We don't feel any reason we should have lost this game. The ball didn't bounce our way at the end. A couple of plays went their way. We still had a chance."
The best one came when Matthews tried to hit a leaning 3-pointer with 22 seconds left and Marquette down four. The ball rattled in and back out and Louisville's Earl Clark came down with the rebound, leaving Williams to celebrate by pointing to the "Louisville" logo across the front of his jersey as time expired.
"We want to go out as champions," he said. "I'm excited about the position we're in. We've been through a lot of wars and there's a lot more basketball to play."