The fire of Coach Mack and the Musketeers became the story of the season as Xavier simply refused to fade away.
Today concludes our look back at the 2011-2012 Xavier season. This season was unlike any other in Xavier basketball history. Never had a Musketeers team started with such high expectations or struggled through such adversity. In a three part series, we looked at the promising beginning, the Shootout and the fallout, and then the final run to the Sweet Sixteen. When that concludes, we'll take a look forward at the incoming class.
When Dayton came to the Cintas Center on the 18th of February, it was to play a game that neither team could afford to lose. Whichever team lost would be left in the unenviable position of having to win its way through the Atlantic 10 tournament to make the NCAAs. Xavier had been up and down after the fight with UC and needed some sort of win to get things going in the right direction again.
Thankfully, they got it. Tu Holloway played the last 29:40 of the game without turning the ball over and put up 32/6/5 in the first game since the fight in which he looked like himself again. Mark Lyons and Kenny Frease also played good games and things finally, finally, seemed headed in the right direction. They were, but not as simply as it seemed.Xavier threw away all possible momentum by laying a complete egg at UMass. The Musketeers somehow turned the ball over 11 times in the first six minutes and 16 times in the first half. Raphiael Putney continued the trend of long, shooting fours destroying Xavier, and scored 11 points in the first half on three three balls. Every bit of good emotion following the OT Dayton was gone in a flash.
The Musketeers rebounded from that setback by beating the Richmond Spiders three days later. Typical of the season though, it wasn't easy. A 16-0 lead evaporated as the team again lost Kenny Frease and lost focus. After trailing in the second half, the men in blue rallied behind 19/14/0 from the big man and came back for the win. The offense was again listless, but heart was evident all through the performance as the Musketeers refused to quit.
Unfortunately, Xavier followed the season script by heading to Saint Louis and losing. Not content to simply lose though, the Musketeers blew a 39-29 lead in the second half and averaged only a point a minute in the last 20 to lose 70-59. A win would have moved Xavier off the bubble and safely into the tournament, but they folded, again, and lost an opportunity, again. The forwards were bad, Kenny Frease was underutilized, and Tu Holloway failed to show up. Things were not looking good.
Kenny Frease, though, was stepping up. His 10 and 8 in the Saint Louis game came in only 18 minutes and followed a dominating performance against Richmond. The next game was against Charlotte, and Xavier again managed to come out flat, trailing 37-23 with three minutes to play as Chris Braswell dominated for the 49ers. The seniors stood up to be counted though, and Xavier needed them. Frease went for 18 and 12, and Tu Holloway keyed Xavier's 23-8 game ending run by burying a three pointer 1:57 to play that finished the Charlotte threat off.
That sent Xavier into the A10 tournament to await the winner of a first round game. Of course, it was Dayton and, of course, Xavier trailed by ten at the half. Again, Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease took the game over. Coach Mack seemed determined to get the big man involved, and he responded with 17/7/3. Tu was the the Tu of old, scoring 21/5/2 but, more importantly, he seemed to be having fun again. After Dayton was zipped up down the stretch, Tu raced to the students in a sort of skipping run. His smile was back, and Xavier suddenly seemed dangerous again.
The next victim was Saint Louis. Tu again went for 21/5/3, and Kenny Frease continued his career ending run by demanding double teams all night. The pride of Massillon only scored nine, but his presence opened up the slashing lanes that Xavier's guards needed. Dez Wells capitalized with 18/4/2, and Mark Lyons managed 14/6/1 and the dagger three that finished off the Billikens. Saint Louis vanquished, the Musketeers had launched themselves from the bubble to sure thing for the NCAA tournament. Even an A10 finals loss to St. Bonaventure did nothing to slow the growing momentum that Xavier had reclaimed.
Notre Dame was the #7 seed that #10 Xavier met in the first round. Of course, Xavier managed to fall behind by ten in the second half. Notre Dame, running their not offense, took that lead with 12:22 to play. From there, Xavier went 29-15 to close the game. Still, Xavier was trailing by three with one minute to play to cue up a bizarre finish that, if Lehigh hadn't just beaten Duke, would have been the most talked about of the night.
With the score 63-30, Mark Lyons caught the ball on the left wing and ripped baseline for a quick basket. As Notre Dame brought the ball back down the floor, things got a bit odd. Dez Wells left Pat Connaughton deep on the left baseline and race toward mid court. As the clock ticked past 33 seconds, Eric Atkins saw Connaughton suddenly come open and launched a pass in his general direction. Unfortunately for the Irish, Connaughton isn't 12 feet tall, and the pass found nothing but the first row of seats.
That left the ball back in the hands of the man whose teammates sometimes call him Mariano Rivera. Holloway ran off a screen into the right hand channel and directly at Jack Cooley. With the game on the line, the best players on each team were now face to face. Holloway drove hard and then rose and squared his shoulders and found the glass and net from ten feet away. The Notre Dame lead had evaporated and all Xavier just needed one stop to secure a date with the Mountain Hawks.
After a timeout, Jerian Grant found himself again open for a long three. This time though, he missed. Dez Wells, with his head at the rim raked down the board and converted one of two to give Xavier a very tenuous two point lead. Eric Atkins raced the other way and forced Dee Davis into a foul he really couldn't avoid. With 2.8 seconds on the clock, Notre Dame was on the line to tie. Once again though, a simple lack of knowledge of the rules crippled a comeback. This time, it was a member of the Fighting Irish coming from behind the arc before the ball touched rim. On the ensuing Xavier inbound, Connaughton's attempt to water ski off Dez Wells was correctly called an intentional foul. At that point, it was all over but Cooley's crying.
That left Xavier with everyone's darling, the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, in the second round. And, you guessed it, the Musketeers fell behind. This time, it was a 15 point deficit at 31-16 that Xavier had to overcome. A 17-6 run cut the lead to four at the half. Kenny Frease' 26/12/0 came on 11-13 from the floor and completed dominated the game when he had the ball. If not for a nearly 13 (!) minute stretch in which he only got one shot, Big Kenny could have scored 35. Lehigh went by the wayside 70-58 and, somehow, the Musketeers were in the Sweet 16 again.
The season was destined to end there. A 15 second burst of seven points from Tu Holloway couldn't quite get Xavier all the way back from the 18 point lead they spotted the Baylor Bears. It was a comeback too many for the Musketeers, but they were once again game on the big stage. A small school from Ohio was in the Sweet 16, a Sweet 16 bereft of some of the big names in college ball. The heart that they showed in rallying from setback after setback all year was on display for the nation to see. At the very end, Xavier's refusal to quit in the face of adversity had become the narrative of the season.