No. 3 Pittsburgh (27-3, 14-3) led 43-36 at halftime, but the 13th-ranked Golden Eagles (23-7, 12-5) quickly turned that advantage around in the second half with a 21-5 run in just 4:03 and led by nine, 57-48 on a 3-pointer by Jerel McNeal. Six of Marquette's 12 first-half field goals were from long range, and three of its four second-half treys came in those opening minutes.
However, Pitt turned up the defensive pressure, especially from the perimeter, and the Golden Eagles couldn't stop the momentum from turning as well. The Panthers outscored Marquette 42-18 during the final 15-plus minutes to win going away.
"I was just talking to the players and saying 'let's go,' and Coach Dixon was going back and forth,'' Pitt sophomore center DeJuan Blair said. "He was telling us to lock down and play good defense. Obviously, we started doing that, and everybody clamped down. We started making shots, and it changed for us.''
Blair scored 23 points and was dominating inside during Pitt's decisive second-half run, which buried Marquette and set up a Big East showdown against No. 1 Connecticut Saturday at noon at the Petersen Events Center. That matchup might decide one or two of the four top seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
"It's going to be a motivation game for us,'' Blair said. "Like you heard the fans saying, 'we want UConn.' ... Its going to be a celebrity death match.''
If Blair plays another all-around game like he did against the Huskies in the Pitt win in Hartford and against Marquette, the Panthers will be tough to beat. Along with scoring 23 points in 35 minutes, Blair also had nine rebounds, four blocked shots, three assists and one steal to lead Pitt.
Senior forward Sam Young added 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks, while senior point guard Levance Fields tallied 17 points and 10 assists with two steals and just two turnovers. Junior guard Jermaine Dixon had 13 points, four assists and four rebounds, while redshirt sophomore forward Gilbert Brown played a season-high 30 minutes and scored 11 points with three rebonds and three assists.
"They were shooting the ball, basically, in our face in the second half,'' Brown said. "So, we had to pressure them more and play better help defense. ... We wanted to prevent them from shooting threes and force them to drive more.
"Basketball is a game of runs, and we knew we had it in us to come back. You've just got to know as a team, defensively and offensively, when it comes down to it, we're going to be back in the game and have a chance to win it.''
The Panthers weren't flustered by the kind of turnaround they may see again in postseason play, quickly answering with a 9-0 surge finished off by Blair's dunk to tie it at 57. After that, it was Marquette that couldn't find an answer to Pitt's inside-out game, with Fields pulling up for jumpers or making outlet passes to Blair and Young for quick baskets before the Panthers made Marquette work for points at the other end.
McNeal scored 23 points and Lazar Hayward had 22, but the Golden Eagles lost their third in a row -- all to teams in the top six, previously losing to UConn and Louisville -- and all since senior point guard Dominic James broke a bone in his foot. Wesley Matthews added 16 points but Maurice Acker, filling it for James, was held to six. McNeal was 8-of-24 from the field after going 3-of-19 while scoring 10 points in the 62-58 loss to Louisville Sunday.
Senior Tyrell Biggs put Pitt ahead to stay by scoring inside with 11:04 remaining, making it 63-61, and Fields converted a three-point play ahead of another close-range basket by Blair to make it 69-63.
After that, Brown hit a 3-pointer and added two long jumpers, Fields hit a fallaway and Blair made two free throws as a sellout crowd began chanting, "We Want UConn, We Want UConn!''
The Panthers will get the Huskies again, the second time they have had a chance to knock off UConn while it was ranked No. 1 this season. Pitt ascended to the No. 1 ranking after beating Connecticut 76-68 Feb. 16 -- the first win in school history against a No. 1 team -- but fell out of the top spot this week after losing at Providence eight days later.
The Panthers led by as many as 10 points in the first half. Marquette, which easily beat the Panthers last season before losing to them in the Big East tournament, scored the first seven points of the second half -- part of the 21-5 run that lasted less than 5 minutes. Matthews started the comeback with consecutive baskets and scored nine points during a run that was ended by McNeal's 3-pointer.
"We realized that even when they made that run and went ahead, that we were executing and doing things right,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We took good shots and didn't make them and, eventually, those good shots became makes and we were able to pull away.''
The surge briefly quieted a loud, sign-waving sellout crowd that was revved up by the surprise pre-game announcement that Pitt assistant coach Brandin Knight's No. 20 jersey would become one of only four retired by the school. The point guard led Pitt's resurgence from 1999-2003, twice leading the Panthers to Big East regular-season titles.
The Panthers still could win the Conference title this year, but only if they beat UConn and No. 6 Louisville loses Saturday at West Virginia.