By Chris Duncan
The Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Eighth-ranked Marquette is looking for a few more season-defining moments in Louisville during this week's Conference USA tournament.
The first one came Feb. 27, when the Golden Eagles came from 19 points down in the first half to beat the Louisville Cardinals 78-73.
The Eagles trailed the Cardinals - then ranked 11th -by 11 points at halftime and huddled at midcourt for a quick pep talk from Coach Tom Crean before heading to the locker room.
"It was a little bit of a battle cry," Crean said. "I don't think we had momentum, but I do think we were gaining confidence. I wanted to take a few seconds to build on it."
Marquette did, mounting an 18-4 run early in the second half and holding off Louisville before the third-largest crowd of the season at Freedom Hall.
The Golden Eagles (23-4, 14-2 C-USA) finished the season with victories at home over UAB and Cincinnati to clinch their first regular-season league championship. They've won 15 of their last 16 heading into Thursday's tournament opener against the winner of Wednesday's Charlotte-UAB game.
"It's a great feeling," Crean said. "You work long and hard to get yourself to the point where you can call your team a champion. Everybody is excited about what they did, but I think they're really looking forward to the future that's right in front of us."
The favorite's role is new to Marquette, which has its fewest regular-season losses since the year after it won the 1977 NCAA championship under Al McGuire.
"We're trying to take the attitude that we're starting over," Crean said. "Every practice is that type of mentality. Every workout is trying to break down what we need to get better at and prepare for each game and not get ahead to Friday or Saturday. Because nothing is guaranteed for this team beyond Thursday."
Marquette, the American Division champion, didn't meet the National Division champion Memphis during the regular season.
The second-seeded Tigers (22-5, 13-3) have won 11 straight games, including their own season-turning victory in Louisville on Feb. 19.
Coach John Calipari said he's done very little coaching during Memphis' run since it lost three of four games in mid-January.
"Crisis brings about change and there was a crisis," Calipari said. "From that point on, they looked at us and said, 'OK, tell us how we're going to have to play.' And they responded."
The Tigers await the winner of Wednesday's DePaul-South Florida game after earning their highest tournament seed since Conference USA's inaugural 1996 season.
"These guys won it for themselves more than I won it for them," Calipari said. "As a coach, you're along for the ride, instead of just pushing and coaxing and grabbing and begging. It's been fun."
Marquette and Memphis are the league's two division winners, but the third-seeded Cardinals (21-6, 11-5) are playing at home, where they've won 29 of 34 games in two seasons under coach Rick Pitino.
The former Kentucky coach is at his best in conference tournaments. The Wildcats were 17-1 in the Southeastern Conference tournament under Pitino.
Louisville awaits the winner of Wednesday's Tulane-Houston game, but Pitino isn't sure how much the home court will help his team, which has lost five of its last eight.
"I've never experienced it," he said. "As you get toward the final game, it's certainly an advantage. Who knows if you're going to get to the final game? Until you get to that point, it's not a big advantage."
The usual tournament favorite, Cincinnati, (17-10, 9-7) will play Southern Mississippi (12-15, 5-11) on Wednesday. The Bearcats had been the top seed in all seven previous conference tournaments before settling for No. 5 this season.
The low seed doesn't matter to the Bearcats, who might need an impressive tournament showing to ensure an NCAA tournament bid.
"If you lose, you go home. We don't want that," said junior guard Tony Bobbitt. "We're just going to come out and give it all we've got."
If the Bearcats advance, they'll play fourth-seeded Saint Louis (15-12, 9-7) in Thursday's quarterfinals. The Billikens have won seven in a row after a 2-7 start in league play.
"I'm not exactly sure how it happened, except for the fact that we just kept plugging away," Saint Louis coach Brad Soderberg said. "To their credit, our kids kept coming to practice with a good attitude, and I'm glad they're starting to get some rewards for that."
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