Three years ago, Davante Gardner was overweight. Marquette coach Buzz Williams told him he shouldn’t even come to Marquette, because his weight would prevent him from notching any playing time at all.
On Monday night, Williams couldn’t keep his junior center off the court. Gardner scored a career-high 26 points on 7-for-7 shooting from the field and 12-for-13 from the line. He also hauled in eight rebounds in his best game as a Marquette player, leading the No. 22 Golden Eagles (20-7, 11-4 Big East) to a 74-71 victory over No. 12 Syracuse (22-6, 10-5 Big East).
“In Syracuse’s zone, the middle is wide open,” Gardner said. “Coach believed in me that I could make the mid-range shot. He trusted me, and that’s where I went.”
Gardner’s efforts contributed to Marquette outscoring Syracuse by 24 from the free throw line. The Golden Eagles also scored 55 bench points, more than double Syracuse’s 25. The 6-foot-8 Virginian said his parents stressed free throws for him from an early age.
“When I was young, my dad and my mom stressed me on my free throws,” Gardner said. “They didn’t worry about anything else, just working on my free throws.”
Gardner also said he likes when the fans chant “automatic” while he shoots free throws.
Williams said Gardner has a unique understanding of “space” that sets him apart from other young basketball players.
“It’s really hard to teach space,” Williams said. “The older I get, the more aware I become that young people really have no spatial awareness. For whatever reason, Davante understands spaces as well as anybody.”
The win extended Marquette’s home winning streak to 24 games, second in the nation behind the 30-game streak boasted by South Dakota State. Much of the credit for the latest victory must go to the 16,000 raucous fans that inspired the Golden Eagles from start to finish.
“The support we get from everyone here, it’s just great,” Jamil Wilson said. “Our fellow students come out and support us no matter what. They make us a priority and come and support us.”
The Bradley Center noise peaked with 1:24 to go in the first half, when Jake Thomas, who hadn’t made a field goal since Dec. 22 against LSU, hit a three-pointer and drew a foul, cutting the Syracuse lead to 29-25.
“I was happy for him,” Williams said. “I just wanted somebody to make a shot. The shot that he made, we got a stop on the other end. Obviously, that’s helpful, because we can flatten out the zone quicker.”
The 11-point deficit Marquette faced late in the first half marked the most points it had trailed by in a victory this season. Moreover, following a Steve Taylor, Jr. free throw with 11:25 remaining in the first half, Marquette failed to score for 7:40. Despite the setbacks, the Golden Eagles teamed up for a great collective victory.
“Can we win without Jake’s shot?” Williams asked. “Can we win without Todd [Mayo’s] shots and steal? Can we win without Davante’s great offensive rebounds and free throw makes, without Steve’s offensive rebounds and steals? It’s a collection, it’s a conglomeration.”