Yesterday felt like a lot more than just another game for Xavier. An oft maligned big man continued a hot streak, a head coach made necessary adjustments, and a senior guard (hopefully) left his home court in style. Yesterday was about even more than Kenny Frease, Chris Mack, and Tu Holloway though, yesterday Xavier finally showed some heart and won a game that required them to fight the whole way.
As the Charlotte 49ers overcame Kenny Frease' initial outburst and built a 16-11 lead, there was a great feeling of "here we go again" in the Cintas Center. Xavier played a 12 minute stretch in the first half in which they managed only 13 points and did an awful lot of standing around. When the media timeout hit with 3:22 to play, boos rained down on a Xavier team trailing 32-21 and looking very much like a team getting ready to host an NIT first round game.Things actually contrived to get slightly worse from there, with Charlotte pushing the lead to 37-23 with 2:23 on a DeMario Mayfield three pointer. Part of the issue with Xavier's first half malaise was the foul trouble of Kenny Frease. the fouls called on Kenny were of the touch variety, but that didn't mean they didn't count. The big man missed large portions of the first half, which led to three problems. First, Kenny was having a monster game. His 9/7/0 in the first half if anything failed to show the impact the big man made on the offense. While Kenny was in, the guards were able to cycle off him and find space. When he wasn't, they didn't. Secondly, Frease was the only player able to handle the extremely obnoxious Chris Braswell. While Braswell wasn't dancing or engaging in some other sort of self-aggrandization, he was torching the Musketeers for 16/6/1. Lastly, Frease not anchoring the middle opened space for the Charlotte bigs to grab nine offensive rebounds in the first half. That particular stat led Coach Mack to rip into his team at the half for their failure to box out.
Thankfully, Tu Holloway showed up for this game. A 9-0 run for Xavier closed out the half, and Tu chipped in six of those. With time waning on the first half clock, Holloway lost the ball momentarily before gathering it and himself and drilling a jumper at the buzzer. The boos turned to cheers as Xavier jogged off the court back within single digits.
After the half, Xavier came out and simply started to grind Charlotte down. Nothing spectacular led to the Musketeers grabbing the 42-41 lead with 13:55 to play, but it felt like it had been coming. Just that quickly though, Xavier again lost focus. A 6-2 Chris Braswell run, and the 49ers were back ahead. Six minutes of trading buckets later, back to back three pointers from Deuce Briscoe put Xavier back down six and reeling. The momentum of the run back into the game was lost, and the Musketeers had 8:48 to win a game they could no afford to lose without dashing their bubble hopes.
Mark Lyons didn't have a great game yesterday, his 11/2/3 came on a 3-12 shooting effort, and he committed two turnovers and missed a dunk. Lyons, however, scored when he was needed. Between Briscoe's threes, Lyons hit a layup. After the lead went to six, Lyons converted two free throws and then buried a three that was from every bit of 24 feet. Suddenly, Xavier was back alive.
From the moment Briscoe hit his second three pointer, Xavier closed on a 23-8 run. Chris Braswell, with 26 points at 10:28 to play, was unable to find room to do anything. In part to protect his big man with three fouls and in part as a strategy move, Coach Mack switched into a 3-2 zone at that point. I asked Braswell after the game if he thought the zone had affected him and he said he just thought the Musketeers had defended him better late. Maybe because he doesn't recognize things like when teams go zone, Braswell was nullified down the stretch. Coach Mack had either Frease or Walker front the big man while the other hedged over. The weakside wing then dropped and left Braswell no room to move. When he did catch the ball, Frease had pushed him away from the bucket and forced him to face up. That problem contained, Xavier just needed their own offense to get going.
Tu Holloway said after the game that sometimes he can just feel the guys looking at him when it is time to take over. Evidently, he felt that yesterday. In the last 5:18 of game time, Holloway poured in 11 points and crushed any chance for a Charlotte rally. No bucket was bigger than the three Tu hit with no time on the shot clock and only 1:57 to play. Charlotte, still very much in it, had held the Musketeers without a decent look for 35 seconds until Holloway took one hard step to his right and rose over Briscoe for the shot that removed all doubt. This season may not have played out how Tu expected, but the storybook ending remained a possibility for at least one more day.
-Has Xavier figured out how to stop a flex four? Javarris Barnett scored only six to go with his six rebounds, but his 3-12 shooting day wasn't all Xavier. Barnett missed some open looks but was harassed a bit more than in the first meeting of these two teams. As long as Kenny Frease hedges hard, flex fours will get shots. Barnett went 0-6, not everyone will.
-Can Xavier's guards operate off the ball? Mark Lyons numbers may not show it, but he was a whirlwind of off ball activity yesterday. Oft accused of being something like the Randy Moss of Xavier basketball, Lyons spent yesterday afternoon chasing down fastbreaks and frequently cutting off the ball. It wasn' a perfect performance for The King of Upstate, but a moving Mark Lyons can wreak havoc on a defense.
-Is Big Kenny coming on? Yes. 18/12/0 on 7-12 from the floor and 4-6 from the line barely describes the impact Kenny had on the game. Holloway's late burst aside, Frease was the most important player for the Musketeers yesterday. If Kenny posts low, works block to block, and rebounds aggressively, he's a monster.
Final thought: Coach Mack got the better of Alan Major today. Mack said after the game that keeping Kenny block to block may have cut down room for drives, but it also gave the big man chances. Frease rewarded his coach, and his guards, by converting those chances and dominating the game. When Coach Mack made the call to stay in the 3-2 with ten minutes to play, that also got the best out of his personnel. I've been quick to point out when Coach Mack has erred this year, so it must be noted that yesterday he was a step ahead.
What I Liked/Didn't Like will come in the midweek as we look forward to the A10 tournament.