MILWAUKEE - Jae Crowder and Marquette played 40 minutes of near-perfect basketball Saturday morning. West Virginia took the first four minutes and last 90 seconds off.
That's all it took for the Mountaineers to fall into an 0-2 hole in the Big East for the first time since 2002.
After fighting back from an 11-point deficit to take several late second-half leads, West Virginia committed a crucial defensive error, turned the ball over when it could least afford to and didn't score after taking a 74-73 lead with 1:44 to play, dropping a 79-74 decision to Marquette at the Bradley Center.
Although it is still ridiculously early in the season with 16 Big East games remaining, the loss put the Mountaineers squarely behind the eight ball in a league with nearly half its members ranked in the Top 25. And they know it.
"Now, honestly, these next two games are must wins for us,'' point guard Truck Bryant said, referring to two more road games on Tuesday at DePaul and Saturday at No. 9 Georgetown. "We need these next two games.''
That sense of urgency would not be nearly as great were the Mountaineers not sitting at 8-4 overall and 0-2 in the league after losing a home game against St. John's on Wednesday and Saturday's near-miss here. Both were winnable games that got away from West Virginia in a league in which there is no margin for such error.
At Marquette, there was room for no error, given the way the Golden Eagles played. Crowder, a 6-foot-6 junior-college forward who was averaging just 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds and had been up and down in his first 13 games, was way up in his 14th. He scored 29 points on 12-of-14 shooting, had five assists and eight rebounds and was seemingly unconscious from start to finish.
"We made him a star, didn't we?'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said.
True, but the rest of the Golden Eagles weren't too bad, either. Marquette shot 52.6 percent from the floor - 64 percent in the second half - had assists on 22 of its 30 field goals and outrebounded the Mountaineers 34-24.
All of that was nearly wasted, though, because after turning the ball over on five of its first six possessions and falling behind 9-0, West Virginia played just as well. Bryant, the epitome of an up-and-down player, was just as up as Crowder Saturday, scoring a career-high 25 points and making nearly all the big shots as WVU clawed its way to a 57-53 lead as the game approached the 10-minute mark. Bryant was so good during that stretch, in fact, that even though Marquette made 12 of its first 15 shots in the second half, the Eagles lost all of the five-point lead they held just minutes into the second half and then some.
When push came to shove in the final minutes, though, Bryant wasn't enough. He scored on a pull-up 14-footer and a drive to the basket, the latter with 1:44 to play, to cap a 6-0 West Virginia run and give the Mountaineers that 74-73 lead.
But at the 1:23 mark, 6-11 sophomore center Chris Otule scored his only basket of the game when no one was around him to block out and he slammed home the rebound on a 3-point miss by Dwight Buycks.
Both Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli were on the floor at the time, but seemed surprised that Buycks took the shot he did so early in the shot clock and were not in position to get the rebound or even block out.
Still, there was plenty of time and more than a few opportunities for West Virginia, which managed to blow them all.
Bryant missed a pull-up from around the free-throw line with just under a minute to play, but Darius Johnson-Odom, who had 21 points, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 47 seconds to go on a play on which John Flowers fouled out. So WVU still trailed by just one.
With 35 seconds to play, though, Bryant threw a pass to Casey Mitchell near the top of the key and Mitchell looked like a wide receiver running with the ball before catching it. Crowder was there and took the ball away, and Mitchell compounded matters by needlessly grabbing his jersey. Even had Crowder scored on a dunk or a layup WVU would have been down by only three and still in a one-possession game with a full shot clock left.
But when Mitchell grabbed Crowder's jersey, he was called for an intentional foul, giving Marquette a chance to put the game away.
Huggins actually took the blame for that - the turnover, not the foul - because he said he called a play that the Mountaineers have worked on very little this season and his players couldn't execute it.
"I tried to do something we did with the guys a year ago,'' Huggins said. "We didn't execute it. It's my fault because we haven't practiced it enough. We have a hard enough time executing the things we practice a lot.''
Still the Mountaineers were not out of it because Crowder made just one free throw and then Jimmy Butler (10 points, all in the second half, along with seven rebounds and six assists) made another. So it was still just 77-74 with the clock running down from 25 seconds.
But Bryant couldn't get a 3-point shot or find anyone open for one and threw up a shot on a drive to the basket with 10 seconds to play that missed. Butler rebounded and made the free throws the ice it.
"I didn't want that shot, but I knew time was running out,'' Bryant said. "I just had to shoot it.''
In addition to Bryant, West Virginia also got 17 points and eight rebounds from Jones, and 14 points each from Kilicli and Mitchell. Kilicli was especially good during spurts of the second half after he was benched and nearly stayed there after turnovers on WVU's first two possessions of the game.
Flowers, though, all but disappeared because of his foul trouble. He didn't score and took only one shot.
His absence was crucial in the end because he leads the Big East in blocks, and defense was where West Virginia needed help.
"They made shots when they needed to make shots. That's when we needed stops,'' Bryant said. "That's the main key why we lost the game. We started playing better offense. Now we have to start playing better defense.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
Marquette 79, West Virginia 74