Yesterday was supposed to cement the changing of guard for a year in the Atlantic 10. The former champion, a hollow shell of what it once was, staggered in at 16-12, sporting home losses to Vanderbilt and Wofford and a laundry list of games thrown away or lost when they shouldn't have been. Farther down the sideline, on the visiting end, sat the shiny new champ built in the image of the old one. Relentless defense, a little bit of swagger, and solid coaching an execution. Last night that new group was supposed to serve notice, on the home court of the old one, that things were changing.
No matter what happened, this game was going to be slow, and that much did go to plan. Even in Saint Louis two biggest wins of the year they rode their defense and let the offense scrap to get to 70. The first half certainly fit that bill, as both teams shot 31% from the floor. The Billikens took a 7-2 lead before Xavier fought it back to a 9-9 draw. Establishing the pattern of the game, Saint Louis then pulled the lead to five but couldn't push it any further. Despite the low scoring, the first half was relatively clean and the teams only combined for eight turnovers. Down low an absolute war raged every time another shot banged off the rim or backboard. Travis Taylor (19/19/1) grabbed six in the first period and Jeff Robinson (9/6/0) added another four as Xavier fought to end every possession.
Saint Louis guard Mike McCall led the Billikens with eight first half points, but it was Xavier guard Semaj Christon (20/7/7) who led everyone with nine and kept Xavier close with two timely three pointers. Even in the face of the Billikens suffocating half court defense, Christon only turned the ball over twice and seemed able to get to the rim when he put his mind to it. Still, Xavier hit the half trailing 24-20 and playing the kind of game in which the Billikens thrive.
Things all changed when the teams came back onto the court for the second half. Two minutes in, Xavier had drawn level at 27. Then, the defense took over. Saint Louis went 6:10 without scoring. Not without a field goal, but without the ball ever going through the hoop. In that time Xavier harassed the conference leaders into 0-8 from the floor and three turnovers. That didn't keep the Billikens from still trying to clamp down on defense, but Xavier went on a 9-0 over that span to take the lead in the game and bring the Cintas crowd fully to bear. A Brad Redford (11/3/0) three capped the run and forced Saint Louis into a timeout as the home fans started to sense that there was a chance the upset could happen.
The Billikens weren't done though, and they answered with an 8-2 run of their own. Xavier pushed the lead back to six, and Saint Louis cut it back to three. With 5:34 to play Brad Redford struck again to push the lead back to five at 50-45 in a game that was still being played at a glacial pace. One minute later, Xavier led by seven and looked good value to hang on for another upset win at home. Unfortunately, the Musketeers kept earning trips to the line and kept not converting. An 11-19 performance from the stripe in the second half let Saint Louis stay in the game, and eventually they took advantage. Xavier led by four with 48 seconds to play, but Dee Davis 2-4 in the next two possessions gave Jordair Jett the chance to tip his team level with 12 seconds to play. A poorly executed offensive sequence later and another late lead had evaporated, this one taking the game to overtime.
In that second half Saint Louis shot 37.5% from the floor to Xavier's 54.2%. More than that though, the Musketeers simply outworked the supposedly better team, out rebounding them by three, scoring 10 second chance points, and getting another 12 points off Billiken turnovers. The defensive effort beyond the numbers was just as stellar. Guards and big men alike flew out at shooters, contested shots, trapped the post, and in general made life difficult for the visitors. Even with all that though, the game still headed to overtime with a feeling of unease hanging over the Cintas. After all, this was a Xavier team that had found ways to lose all year.
This is also a Xavier team that has beaten Butler, Memphis, Purdue on the road, Temple, and La Salle. The Musketeers came out and crushed Saint Louis in the overtime period. The free throw shooting woes disappeared and Xavier went 14-16 from the line in the third frame, burying the foul prone Billikens before they had a chance to react. In fact, after Travis Taylor and Jeff Robinson scored inside to start the period, all of the Musketeers points came from the line. The five minute long 18-7 was one of Xavier's best stretches of play all year. The Billikens responded by not making a field goal until that had already missed their first nine. The new bullies of the block, the supposed champions, had come to the Cintas and been found lacking. For the three seniors, it was one final home victory to remember.
- Will the pace matter? The game was played slowly for about the first 35 minutes, at which point it looked like Saint Louis ran out of gas. While objectively better at execution, the Billikens were no match athletically for a Xavier team that first wore them down, then ran past them.
- Who will control the boards? Travis Taylor's 19 rebounds went a long way to keep Xavier in the battle on the glass. No team ever seized the advantage as shots caromed every which way in the first half. In the second half Xavier managed a bit of advantage and, bolstered by their own shooting, started to take the game back.
- Can Semaj handle the pressure? Yes, to the tune of seven assists and only four turnovers, while scoring 20 points and handling the offensive responsibilities that Dee Davis isn't ready for yet. Against VCU, Semaj looked young and unprepared, against a team that is unquestionably better defensively in the half court, he looked much better.
For Xavier to get a bye in Brooklyn they need to beat Butler on Saturday and have VCU beat Temple on Sunday. If those two things don't happen, it's four games in four days. As things stand now, Xavier would play St. Bonaventure in the first round and then meet La Salle were they to win. That, obviously, all depends on what happens this weekend.
Travis Taylor recorded career highs in rebounds (19) and blocks (6) in last night's game. That's not a bad way to go out in front of the home crowd. Brad Redford also equaled a career high in blocks (1).
Tweet of the Game:
Joe Hughes (@hughes_33) March 7, 2013
Next game: @Butler, Saturday at 6:30pm