MINNEAPOLIS - Marquette players laughed and joked back in January, when they took tours of the Superdome arranged by head coach Tom Crean.
From that quiet visit - around a New Orleans trip for a game at Tulane - they found out where the locker rooms were, how monstrous the structure is, where their bench was. "All you could see was the seats," Golden Eagles forward Todd Townsend said.
Now, Marquette gets the return trip to the Superdome it wanted - a spot in the Final Four - thanks to a dazzling effort in another dome. The Golden Eagles ended top-ranked Kentucky's 26-game win streak yesterday, 83-69, before 28,383 at the Metrodome, getting a triple double by Dwyane Wade.
The rout in the Midwest Regional final gave the school its first Final Four appearance since its only national title in 1977.
"I know it wasn't their day. It was our day," Crean said. "We knew we had to be on top of our game today. ... We have tremendous respect for Kentucky, but I can't say enough about our guys. We're going to play another week."
Wade finished with 29 points, 11 assists, 11 rebounds - while adding four blocks - and Robert Jackson had 24 points and 15 rebounds.
"I think this was Dwyane's best performance and Robert Jackson's as well," point guard Travis Diener said. "These two guys put on a show for the fans, and it was an honor to be on their team and not playing against them."
The third-seeded Golden Eagles (27-5), who ended Pittsburgh's 11-game win streak on Thursday, blew the game open yesterday with a 35-12 run over the last 12:03 of the first half.
For the top-seeded Wildcats (32-4), Keith Bogans played with a high ankle sprain and contributed 15 points, but couldn't find the basket during the devastating period that ended with a 19-point halftime deficit. Kentucky shot 25.8 percent from the field before the break.
"Maybe the players would be able to rally around him," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, whose team lost for the first time in 2003. "But we weren't able to get any consistent scoring."
The game had a slow start, marked by a combined eight substitutions over the first eight minutes. Kentucky seemed to have the edge, despite the hobbled presence of Bogans, not listed as a starter as late as an hour before gametime.
During that time, the Wildcats defense managed to prevent much Marquette success in the paint, with Marquis Estill picking up a pair of blocks. Offensively, Kentucky couldn't shoot, but did well on the boards, extending one possession to five shots before Erik Daniels hit a layin for the first of two buckets and a 14-10 lead at the 12:03 mark.
The Golden Eagles would not allow more than two buckets from that moment, keeping Kentucky's second chances to a minimum - defending only 13 shots over the final dozen minutes, as opposed to the 18 they did in the first eight.
Offensively, Jackson outplayed Estill. The senior from Mississippi State had 14 first-half points, and had a putback with 10:25 remaining to put Marquette ahead for good, 15-14. Momentum built from there, Jackson following up with two more baskets inside, and his free throw at the 5:24 mark extended the Golden Eagles' lead to double digits for the first time at 29-19.
Freshman Scott Novak came off the bench to give Marquette another lift late in the half, knocking down three three-pointers over a 2:30 period. The third of those, with 1:16 left until halftime, put the team up 43-24, and it got its largest lead 40 seconds later before going into the locker room with a 45-24 lead.
Not so quietly, Wade had already logged 11 points to that point, adding eight rebounds, seven assists and four blocks to that.
In the second half, the Wildcats had closed to within 12 points when Gerald Fitch and Antwain Barbour made consecutive buckets to make the score 59-47 with 10:54 to go.
"They had just won 26 games in a row, and it would be a game," said Novak, who also added 15 points.
Following a Scott Merritt layin for Marquette, Wade answered Kentucky by scoring the team's next 10 points. He began by dunking in Estill's face, then knocking down a three-pointer, dunking again and then blowing by Barbour and fouling out Chuck Hayes - Kentucky's top defender - on a reverse layin to put the Golden Eagles up 72-54 with 6:17 to go.
"I was just going to give it my all and leave nothing on the court," Wade said. "Once I got going, my teammates did a great job of finding us. And if anyone gets going, they are tough to guard."