The tension was palpable inside the Marquette Union Sports Annex.
Outside of Finals Week and the occasional unannounced inspection by a resident advisor, you don't sense that kind of gut-wrenching drama on campus.
But, it was there in abundance Friday afternoon. A large crowd of students and alums packed into the basement at 804 N. 16th St. to watch Marquette survive a scare and beat Utah State, 58-57, in a first-round game at the NCAA Tournament.
An hour before the 11:30 a.m. tipoff, the facility was virtually empty and the big-screen TVs were tuned to Drew Carey presiding over "The Price is Right." As game time approached, the Annex began to fill.
Students with backpacks grabbed tables next to lawyers on their lunch hour. Customers ordered nachos, fish sandwiches and tuna wraps (not surprising for a Jesuit institution during Lent) while guzzling beer and soda.
In the first half, the crowd seemed relaxed and a bit subdued. Of course, the sixth-seeded Golden Eagles were up by 14 points at one point and seemed to be in control of the game. Confident Marquette fans could be heard discussing plans for Sunday's second round.
And then... well, let's just say a funny thing happened on the way to the blowout.
Utah State, led by Jared Quayle, hit a few big shots to open the second half and built its confidence. The Aggies embarked on a 11-0 run to take a 49-46 lead with 4 minutes 41 seconds left. Suddenly, Marquette fans weren't taking Sunday for granted.
The Golden Eagles, whose senior standouts Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews struggled to hit shots for much of the game, kept calm. Lazar Hayward, who finished with 26 points, drained a pair of free throws to give MU a 52-51 lead with 1:45 left.
The tension at the Annex hit a crescendo in the closing moments when CBS switched to the end of the Oklahoma State-Tennessee game, but Marquette and its fans survived.
McNeal made a driving layup with a minute left and Marquette led the rest of the way. When Utah State's Jaxon Myaer hit a three-pointer as time expired, the crowd at the Annex seemed torn between celebrating and sighing in relief.
"A win is a win," one man in a business suit said as he headed up the stairs toward Well Street. "It doesn't have to be pretty. It just has to be a win."
The Golden Eagles will advance to face Missouri at approximately 4 p.m. Sunday.
In order for Marquette to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, coach Buzz Williams will need better production out of McNeal and Matthews, who combined to make 6 of 26 shots, and more production from Jimmy Butler, who was in foul trouble for much of the day.
Better shooting would help the cause, too.
With the Aggies in a zone defense for most of the game, the Golden Eagles made just 36.2 percent of their shots for the game, but offset that masonry by making 19 of 23 free throws. Hayward made 9 of his 14 shots. His teammates combined to go 8 for 33.
The Aggies, whom Williams termed "the most difficult team I've had to prepare for, as a head coach or an assistant," got 18 points from Quayle, who fouled out, and 15 apiece from Wilkinson and Tai Wesley. The Aggies made 41 percent of their shots and six of eight free throws.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.