DENVER — Marquette may have made the NCAA tournament, anyway. But that wasn't good enough for the Golden Eagles, who stormed back from a 7-3 halftime deficit and stunned defending national champion Denver 10-9 in the Big East championship game Saturday at Peter Barton Stadium.
In just its fourth season of existence, Marquette (11-4) punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament and may have put itself in position to host a first-round game. The Pioneers (13-2) are a lock for an at-large bid, much to the chagrin of several teams sitting on the bubble. Denver became the third conference favorite to go down this weekend, joining Albany (America East) and Brown (Ivy League).
Sophomore Tanner Thomson scored a game-high four goals for the Golden Eagles. Three of Thomson's goals came during a surprisingly dominant third quarter in which Marquette shut out Denver while rattling off six unanswered goals to take a 9-7 lead. Faceoff man Zachary Melillo, going up against at-times unbeatable Trevor Baptiste, won five of seven faceoffs during the run as part of a 12-for-23 performance.
Denver's Zach Miller scored twice in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter to tie the game at 9. The score stayed that way until Marquette's Andy DeMichiei delivered the game-winner with 5:55 remaining.
The Golden Eagles did their best Denver impression with exceptional marksmanship, shooting 10-for-28 (36 percent). The Pioneers, who came in leading Division I with 39.2-percent shooting, shot just 9-for-34 (26.5 percent). Marquette defenseman Liam Byrnes led a defense that limited Connor Cannizzaro to just one assist. Byrnes actually outscored Denver's star attackman by virtue of his second-quarter goal. Cannizzaro also committed four turnovers.
Marquette has the largest senior class in the country with 19 players.
"I can't put that into words, what that makes me feel like," coach Joe Amplo said. "That's why I coach, to be around young men like this. Those kids have made me such a better person, let alone a better coach."
The victory is Marquette's first in five meetings against Denver and also snapped the Pioneers' NCAA-best 22-game home winning streak at Peter Barton Stadium. It is also only the second victory ever for a Marquette team in any sport over the nation's No. 1 team. The only other Golden Eagles team to beat the country's No. 1 was the 2003 men's basketball team led by Dwyane Wade over Kentucky in the NCAA Elite Eight.
"We know that they are the gold standard. They are the gold standard in our sport," Amplo said of Denver. "Coach [Bill] Tierney, there are times during the game that I will look over on the sidelines and can't believe I'm coaching a team against him. It is just so humbling to compete against that man and his staff. To have the opportunity to beat the defending national champions in this environment is probably the most humbling feeling I can have."
Byrnes, a graduate student who is the Golden Eagles' all-time leader in ground balls and caused turnovers, was named the Big East tournament's most outstanding player. His wing play helped Melillo neutralize Baptiste. He's one of three Marquette players selected in the Major League Lacrosse draft in January. The Florida Launch tabbed Byrnes, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, in the third round with the 21st overall pick in January.
But pro lacrosse will have to wait. Byrnes and the Golden Eagles appear poised to do some damage well into May.