MILWAUKEE – Marquette moved a step closer to earning its first conference title in a decade by turning a weakness into a strength.
Olivier-Maxence Prosper converted a putback with 1.6 seconds left and No. 11 Marquette edged No. 16 Xavier 69-68 on Wednesday night to extend its slim Big East lead.
After Kam Jones missed his driving layup attempt, Prosper used his right hand to tip in the offensive rebound and put the Golden Eagles back in front.
“I knew if he missed it, that was my rebound,” Prosper said. “I just went as hard as I could. It bounced right. I just went up there and just put it back in. That’s just an effort play.”
Marquette (21-6, 13-3), picked to finish ninth by the league’s coaches in the preseason poll, moved 1 1/2 games ahead of Xavier (19-7, 11-4), No. 24 Providence and No. 18 Creighton.
The Golden Eagles haven’t claimed a conference championship since earning a share of the Big East crown in 2013, also the last year they won an NCAA Tournament game.
Marquette surged into conference title contention despite entering Wednesday with a minus-3.4 rebound margin that ranked 311th out of all Division I teams. In an 80-76 loss at Xavier on Jan. 15, Marquette was outrebounded 45-32.
The Golden Eagles turned that around Wednesday.
“We knew that as long as we were the team that was going to put the most effort out there and just go after it, we were going to get the majority of them,” Prosper said. “It’s about being quicker to the ball. Coach (Shaka Smart) preaches that all the time: Be quicker to the ball.”
Marquette outrebounded Xavier 36-32 and outscored the Musketeers 15-7 in second-chance points. The Golden Eagles had 15 offensive rebounds, including 11 in the second half.
No rebound was bigger than Prosper’s putback in the final seconds. His basket produced the 15th and final lead change of the second half after Jack Nunge’s layup put Xavier ahead 68-67 with 8.3 seconds remaining.
“I thought that last play was the storyline of the entire second half,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “We could not get a defensive rebound.”
Xavier’s Jerome Hunter threw a long inbounds pass to Nunge, whose deep 3-point try caromed off the backboard as the buzzer sounded.
Marquette got 17 points and a career-high six steals from Stevie Mitchell. Tyler Kolek scored 15 and Oso Ighodaro added 14. Prosper had seven points, all in the last five minutes.
Souley Boum fought through a sprained ankle to score 24 points for the Musketeers.
Xavier shot 70% in the second half but couldn’t hang onto its 28-24 halftime lead because of its inability to take care of the ball and prevent Marquette’s second-chance opportunities. In the second half, Xavier committed 11 turnovers and attempted 16 fewer shots than Marquette.
The Musketeers led 66-63 and had the ball in the final minute before Boum lost it and Mitchell got a steal, leading to Prosper’s layup with 29.1 seconds remaining. Xavier committed a backcourt turnover on its ensuing possession, as Boum’s pass went off Colby Jones’ body before going out of bounds.
“We just had some inexplicable things happen at the end to us, just turnovers that, as much as I’d like to give our opponent credit for forcing the turnover, I think they were about as surprised as we were,” Miller said. “We just kind of gave it to them a couple of times at the end.”
Ighodaro got fouled and hit two free throws with 22.4 seconds left to put Marquette ahead. Nunge’s layup off a nice pass from Colby Jones put Xavier back in front before Prosper’s clutch tip-in.
Xavier: The Musketeers have lost two straight games by a combined three points. They showed plenty of fortitude by coming as close as they did at far less than full strength. Xavier was playing a fourth straight game without leading rebounder Zach Freemantle due to an injured left foot. Boum was dealing with his injured ankle. The Musketeers also were missing reserve guards Desmond Claude and Kam Craft, who could be out a few weeks with a knee injury.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles won despite shooting 5 of 22 from 3-point range and getting just five points from Kam Jones, who was averaging a team-high 15.2 points per game.
Marquette has a great shot to move back into the top 10 next week.
Xavier: Will host DePaul on Saturday.
Marquette: Plays at No. 18 Creighton next Tuesday.