MILWAUKEE — On Saturday, Davante Gardner was in Buzz Williams’ doghouse, with the Marquette coach benching his junior center after only 11 minutes against Villanova for poor play.
What a difference two days make.
Gardner scored a career-high 26 points, and No. 22 Marquette beat No. 12 Syracuse, 74-71, on Monday night in a game that further tightened things at the top of the Big East.
“Against their zone, he understands where their gap is,” Williams said of Gardner. “He just understands space, and obviously, he did a really good job.”
After Marquette’s 60-56 loss at Villanova on Saturday, Williams said he benched Gardner because “he played really bad.”
Gardner played the exact opposite against Syracuse, making all seven of his shots and converting 12 of 13 free throws in 33 minutes. He even tried to help teammate Jamil Wilson wipe up some sweat on the court in the final minutes during a timeout.
“I know I didn’t play well against Villanova,” Gardner said. “I didn’t have a good game, so I decided I’d play my best against Syracuse, and try to get my team a win.”
Marquette missed nine consecutive shots in the first half, and was having to settle for jumpers, falling behind, 25-14. Gardner started to make his large presence felt late in the half, scoring on a rebound with 3:45 left in the first half for his fi rst fi eld goal.
Gardner dominated from there. When he wasn’t scoring, he was getting fouled and making free throws.
Williams said Gardner understands how to find gaps in zone defenses, including the one run by the Orange.
“You’ve got to make that zone collapse, otherwise, their length smothers you,” Williams said of Syracuse.
Marquette (20-7, 11-4 Big East) pulled into second place in the conference, one-half game behind No. 7 Georgetown.
C.J. Fair had 20 points for Syracuse (22-6, 10-5), which has lost three of five, and dropped into a tie for fourth with No. 21 Notre Dame.
No. 10 Louisville is alone in third, a game behind Georgetown.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said his team lost because it couldn’t handle Gardner, and didn’t rebound well. Marquette made 29 of 35 free throws, while Syracuse made only five of seven.
“We scored enough points tonight, I just think our defense wasn’t good enough, especially our rebounding,” Boeheim said before scolding reporters for bringing up subjects he felt were questioning his coaching decisions.
“You ought to know by now that if you start to ask me those questions, I’ll just laugh at you,” he said. “That’s all I’ll do. Go get your Pulitzer someplace else.”
Reserve guard Todd Mayo hit two three-pointers during a decisive 15-2 Marquette run in the second half, and Gardner gave the Golden Eagles the lead for good at 56-55 on an eight-foot jumper in the lane with 5:05 left.
Michael Carter-Williams hit a three-pointer with one second left to pull the Orange within 73-71, but Vander Blue hit a free throw with two-tenths of a second to go. Syracuse didn’t get a shot off, and the game ended.
Mayo’s second three made it 59-55 with 3:54 to go, and Junior Cadougan was fouled while attempting a fast-break layup.
Syracuse called a timeout, and Gardner and Wilson didn’t immediately go to the bench. They tried to clean up sweat in the Syracuse lane. Wilson grabbed a mop, with Gardner pointing out the perspiration while Marquette assistant coaches frantically waved for them to leave the cleanup for others, and join the huddle.
“I was just trying to help out a teammate,” Gardner said.
Cadougan hit two free throws to extend the lead to 61-55 with 3:37 to go.
James Southerland hit two threepointers to keep the Orange close in the final 70 seconds, but Marquette made its free throws to hold the lead.
Marquette made 24 of 28 free throws in the second half, while Syracuse was 1-for-2.
Cadougan and Wilson both scored 12 points for Marquette, which extended its home winning streak to 24 games, second-longest in the nation.
Southerland scored 15 points, and Carter-Williams added 14 for the Orange.
“They did a good job banging on the offensive glass,” Fair said. “We played solid defense, but we just let them catch some momentum in the second half and we really didn’t convert on offense in the last few minutes like we needed to.”
Fair scored 12 points as Syracuse took a 32-29 halftime lead. Both teams have key games Saturday, with Syracuse hosting Louisville and Marquette hosting Notre Dame.