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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Amani Wilborn got the best gift for her 20th birthday.
She'll never forget winning the Most Outstanding Player Award for helping to lead Marquette to its first Big East Tournament championship and a trip to the NCAAs.
Wilborn scored 20 points off the bench, Natisha Hiedeman had a game-high 28 and six 3-pointers, and the third-seeded Golden Eagles beat top-seeded DePaul 86-78 to win the Big East crown on Tuesday night.
"It's the best feeling, it's the best birthday I've ever had," Wilborn said with a bright smile. "I'm like a little kid again."
Hiedeman tied a season high with her six 3s. But Marquette (25-7) seemed to be at its best when a collection of quick perimeter players went strong to the hoop. Wilborn was 9 of 13 from the field, often beating defenders in the lane for layups or short jumpers.
"It's unbelievable," Wilborn said. "I come into the game and just look to do whatever the team needs in that particular game, and that's what we needed tonight."
A Marquette-friendly crowd roared after the final buzzer with the school hosting the tourney on campus at the cozy Al McGuire Center. Marquette is returning to the NCAAs for the first time since 2011.
Marquette opened the fourth quarter with a 9-2 run to take a 10-point lead and held on late after a turnover and a couple missed foul shots allowed top-seeded DePaul (26-7) to get within 83-78 with 23 seconds left on Jessica January's 3.
The top-seeded Blue Demons wasted one last opportunity with a turnover with 4 seconds left while trailing by five. Six of DePaul's 14 turnovers came in the fourth quarter.
"Marquette won a couple key possessions that we just didn't finish, that we didn't get done," coach Doug Bruno said.
January led DePaul with 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Amarah Coleman had 17 points before fouling out with 1:27 left.
DePaul: The loss likely puts the Blue Demons out of contention for a top-four seed and a chance to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games.
Marquette: A dramatic three-season turnaround ends with a return to the NCAAs. The Golden Eagles were 9-22 in coach Carolyn Kieger's first year as head coach in 2014-15 and 14-16 last season before this year's 25-win breakthrough.
The senior guard followed a 20-point effort against St. John's with another strong performance in the final to be named to the all-tournament team. She 8 of 20 from the field, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range, and added seven rebounds.
"This hurts that we lost in this last game, but us seniors, we still want to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, and we still have a really good chance to play well," January said. "We're going to have to turn the page and get some good practices in."
Hiedeman's shooting helped carry Marquette to a 42-40 lead after a fast-paced first half. She hit a desperation heave from halfcourt to end the first quarter, a shot that she didn't think she would make.
"But I was like, 'It's worth a shot.' I don't know, might as well. It's three points," she said with smile.
Kieger said the focus defensively was to limit DePaul in the paint after the Blue Demons scored a combined 84 points in the teams' two regular-season meetings, both won by Marquette. The Golden Eagles outscored DePaul 34-20 in the paint.
"So we told our team tonight that we were going to defend the paint, and they had 20, and our team really stuck to the game plan, and they said we're going to make them live or die by the 3," she said.
DePaul was 13 of 26 from behind the arc, with Coleman hitting 5 of 6.
The NCAA Tournament brackets will be announced on Monday.
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