VILLANOVA, Pa. – The camera phones were held aloft and throngs of people – many wearing Stevie Mitchell’s No. 4 Marquette basketball jersey – massed around the Finneran Pavilion bleachers for a few words with the returning hero.
Mitchell was all smiles and made time for everybody like a hometown politician. No matter that the sophomore guard’s teammates were enjoying milkshakes and carrying pizza boxes, eager to celebrate the Golden Eagles’ 68-66 victory over Villanova on Saturday.
But how often does this happen? A kid from not far away in Reading, Pennsylvania, who came of age during a golden era for the Wildcats, coming home to have his best college performance in that No. 4 MU jersey?
Come on, that’s storybook stuff.
“It was awesome,” Mitchell said. “Being in Milwaukee, far from home, it’s always nice to see familiar faces.
“Especially when it’s my family and my close friends. That’s always nice and it was definitely an EGB (energy-giving behavior in MU’s parlance) for me.”
Stevie Mitchell has Marquette-high 19 points against Villanova
Maybe everyone should have seen his performance coming after Mitchell canned a three-pointer from the corner on MU’s first possession against the Wildcats (7-7, 1-2 Big East). But Mitchell came into the game averaging just 6.1 points and shooting 23.3% on three-pointers for the Golden Eagles (11-4, 3-1).
His role on this season’s MU team is as a defensive stopper, but he was known as a bucket-getter growing up and he owns all of the scoring records at Wilson High School in Reading.
“My teammates were finding me,” Mitchell said. “And I was being confident in my shot.
“Coaches, my teammates have just been telling me to be confident and always shoot with confidence. Just stick with it even though I haven’t been hitting shots.”
Mitchell scored eight of MU’s first 12 points. He had 12 at halftime, and after a flurry of five straight points early in the second half, surpassed his previous MU high of 14 points set in his first college game last season against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
Mitchell finished with 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting, and provided his usual cheek-by-jowl defense before fouling out with 15 seconds remaining.
“We needed it,” MU coach Shaka Smart said. “It was a struggle at times offensively. It was not, as a team, one of our best offensive games.
“But Stevie’s been such a leader for us. In terms of energy. In terms of deflections. In terms of taking the other team’s leading scorer and making him inefficient. It’s poetic justice that he was able to be our leading scorer today.”
Marquette’s defense on Villanova better in second half
Mitchell wasn’t the only player who contributed key performances for MU in the victory.
Kam Jones added 14 points, hitting key three-pointers when the Golden Eagles were struggling from long range. Freshman Chase Ross had a huge sequence in the second half, driving for a tough layup and then knocking down a three-pointer to tie the game at 53-53.
Golden Eagles center Oso Ighodaro played stellar defense on Villanova’s Eric Dixon to force a miss in the waning seconds. It was another clutch play for the lengthy Ighodaro, who blocked a shot at the end of MU’s victory at Kansas State last season.
“I have a ton of confidence because Oso can guard anybody in the country,” Mitchell said. “When you have Oso, our leader, a guy who wants to play offense and wants to play defense and can play offense and can play defense, in position to make the final stop, I like our chances.”
The versatile Ighodaro also found a cutting Olivier-Maxence Prosper with a nice assist for a dunk that gave the Golden Eagles the winning margin with 1:42 remaining.
After that, the Golden Eagles’ defense banded together for two straight stops before Ighodaro’s final stand.
MU’s defense was much sharper after allowing Villanova to score 44 points in the first half. The Golden Eagles did a better job of finding shooters, with the Wildcats going 4 for 16 on three-pointers after going 8 for 17 in the first 20 minutes.
“We had to,” Smart said. “Between (Caleb) Daniels, (Cam) Whitmore, Dixon and (Brandon) Slater, those guys are all ultra-aggressive.
“And the system here at Villanova has been as good as anyone in the country at exploiting one-on-one opportunities with movement off the ball. And that’s in the post and on the perimeter. Our guys did a good job at just holding their own, putting their chest on the offensive player. We doubled the post some, which was a big part at what we were trying to do. And then, I think, just a little more want-to.”
The Golden Eagles also slowed down Wildcats standout freshman Whitmore, allowing the likely first-round NBA draft pick to score just two points in the second half after he got loose for 12 in the first.
“We always tell our guys, they’ve got McDonald’s All-Americans and we have Burger King guys,” Smart said.
Marquette has won back-to-back close games at Finneran Pavilion
MU won last season for the first time in 10 games at Villanova’s intimate on-campus arena, getting a clutch three-pointer from Justin Lewis.
Now MU has won back-to-back games at what has been a house of horrors for Big East teams. Since the 2013-14 season, Butler is the only other conference foe to win at Finneran Pavilion.
Mitchell, who was recruited by Villanova, knows the history of the program that has won two national titles in the last seven seasons though the Wildcats are still finding their way under first-year coach Kyle Neptune.
“Only one (Big East) team in the last four years to beat them here,” Mitchell said. “It’s not an easy environment to play in.
“Luckily, we were that team. We knew what it took. That was our theme for this game: What it takes.”
The Golden Eagles also put to rest the narrative that they couldn’t win close games. Coming into Saturday, MU’s victories were all by double digits and its four losses were by a combined 16 points with the Golden Eagles holding late leads in each of them.
“We knew that was a question because we had that question for ourselves,” Mitchell said. “We knew we haven’t been able to pull out a game, we haven’t really been doing our best finishing it.
“So that’s been an emphasis. In every film session, in every practice we have, every weight room session that we have. Just keep getting better and that was the emphasis during the game. When we were in the last media (timeout) and the media before that, we were like ‘Yo, we got to finish. We haven’t won a close game so we got to finish.’ We stuck together. We’re better together.”
It’s a good thing Mitchell had so many teammates willing to give him tickets to meet the heavy demand.
“I had 31 people on my ticket list,” he said. “And then I had a bunch of family and friends that also bought tickets.
“My teammates, I’m really grateful for them. They gave me a lot of tickets. I just kept getting notifications: ‘Oso sent you two tickets.’ ‘Chase sent you two tickets.’ ‘TK (Tyler Kolek sent you two tickets.’ I’m grateful to them.”
And those lucky enough to get tickets are no doubt grateful to witness that performance from the homecoming king.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Stevie Mitchell helps Marquette earn tense victory at Villanova