There was a time in Saturday's game where Marquette actually seemed destined to lose to DePaul. In a season where the Golden Eagles have zero good wins and zero bad losses, a home defeat to the Blue Demons would have tipped their scales significantly in the wrong direction. Trailing 40-30 with 15 minutes remaining, they faced the possibility of losing to their inferior Midwest rivals for the first time since 2007.
But then, like a 270-pound knight in shining armor, Davante Gardner swooped in and took over the game, propelling Marquette to what turned out to be a fairly comfortable 66-56 victory. The Suffolk, Va. native scored a career-high 28 points, including 21 huge second half tallies to secure his team's first Big East win of 2014.
Ken Pom rated Gardner's performance a 150, which is his second-highest total of 2013-14. He had eight performances of greater than 150 in 2012-13. Saturday could be considered Gardner's best performance in a Marquette uniform however, considering he also matched a career-high with 35 minutes played.
Durability and stamina have been issues for the big man in the past. Rating as the highest offensive player (with the exception of DePaul's Peter Ryckbosh, who made the only shot he took in 22 minutes and is possibly the worst player in the Big East) while playing nearly 90 percent of the game is a major step in the right direction.
Gardner wasn't brutally efficient from the field, and shot just 9-for-14. In six games this season when he has attempted double-digit field goals, Saturday ranks as his third-highest percentage.
What Gardner did do for the first time since the season opener against Southern was dominate from the free throw line. He shot 10-for-11 from the stripe Saturday for a season high percentage and his second most points from the line this year.
Performances like this might seem old hat to anyone who has watched the man at whom Marquette students chant "automatic" while he toes the line in the past. However, after shooting 75 percent his first two seasons and 83 percent in 2012-13, Gardner's percentage had dipped to just 65 in 2013-14. The big day at the foul line boosted his number to 69.3 percent and should work wonders for his confidence in Big East play.
Gardner also had six rebounds, which might not seem like a lot, but considering he hadn't had that many for four games previous to Saturday and Marquette needs him to be a factor on the boards, that number is a major plus.
Most importantly, Gardner showed that he has the ability to take over a game when Marquette needs him to. No other player has done that yet this season, save for Jamil Wilson in a few losing efforts. Vander Blue gave the Golden Eagles that last season and seemingly willed them to a Big East title and Elite Eight run.
In close games against quality opposition, Marquette has come up short every time so far this season. While the Blue Demons aren't exactly world beaters, Gardner's second half explosion shows Buzz Williams that he has a weapon in his back pocket if he needs to use it. Something like, "Feed Ox on the low box," if you will.