45 minutes is a long time to do anything. Your favorite tv shows aren't that long (44 minutes without commercials), a church service is usually only 40, doctors think your heart will be great if you workout just two thirds of that time. 45 minutes is a long time to do anything, it's an even longer time to do something at an elite level. Last night Tu Holloway played basketball, and played it very well, for 45 minutes. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
When Dayton last beat Xavier in Cincinnati, I hadn't even been born yet, Jimmy Carter was in office, and people would have fainted if you mentioned gas for over $1 a gallon. All of those were being offered as reasons for confidence before this game, but there was no masking the temerity in the fans, players, and coaches as tipoff approached. Dayton had thrashed Xavier in Dayton a month ago in a relatively meaningful game. Now, Dayton arrived in town for a game that Xavier simply had to win to have any chance for an at large bid. All the dead presidents in the world wouldn't matter if the Flyers won this one.
Thankfully, Xavier didn't add to the trepidation by starting slowly. A 9-0 run after the first Dayton bucket staked Xavier to an early lead and both excited and calmed the crowd. Unfortunately, Dayton refused to just accept their fate. In the opening minutes, Coach Mack's desire for his team to play faster came through. In the first five minutes Xavier was aggressive to the point of reckless, turning the ball over five times and committing three fouls. The turnovers and fouls didn't stop there either, with the Musketeers committing nine and 12, respectively, in the first half. It was a sloppy half, but the tempo also forced Dayton into 11 turnovers of their own.
Maybe the biggest story of the foul plagued first half was Kenny Frease. Xavier was clearly determined to not get destroyed on the boards the way they did at Dayton. Frease, obviously, would have a large part to play in that. The big man, however, only managed two minutes in the first half as he was hit with two early fouls (see below for my opinion of the officiating). With their biggest man missing, Xavier gambled on attacking the glass and leaving shooters open. Unlike the first meeting, the Flyers were no making everything. Their 4-14 mark from deep went a long way to keeping the Musketeers in a rebounding dead heat at the half.
The score, though, was not a dead heat. Tu Holloway had scored 13 by the break but had also turned the ball over three times. Travis Taylor had collected a beastly six of Xavier's 20 rebounds, but he had also missed two free throws and two absurdly easy chances from the floor. Xavier trailed 37-32 on a 13-32 from the floor and 5-10 from the line shooting performance. All the hustle in the world wasn't going to win the game unless some shots started to fall.
Xavier came out of the half showing some of the intensity that once had them ranked eighth in the nation. A 15-4 run to open the second period put the Musketeers up 47-41 and go the crowd going again. The six of the last eight of those points came from high flying freshman Dez Wells. With Xavier down two, he slammed down a Mark Lyons alley-oop in transition, the next two straight possessions, he did the work himself. When Chris Johnson answered with a three with 14:35 to play, the game was on.
The game sharpened in the second half. The teams combined for only 11 turnovers, Dayton shot 45% and Xavier 57%, and the teams missed only seven of 31 free throws. Critically, 23 of those free throws were Xavier's. Dayton, of course, clawed back into the game. With 11:13 to play, the scored was tied at 51. Down the stretch this game turned into a classic. Twice Kenny Frease grabbed offensive rebounds off Xavier free throw misses and the Musketeers surged back to a 66-61 lead. Dayton answered right back, with a Paul Williams three and two Kevin Dillard free throws knotting the game right back up.
Then it was Mark Lyons turn. The junior guard buried a three to give Xavier a 69-66 lead. Lyons started this game and showed a great deal more passion than he had in quite some time. His 20 points on a brutally efficient 8-13 from the floor kept Dayton from completely keying on Tu Holloway. The backcourt duo was back in full swing but still, the Muskies could not shake the tenacious Flyers. Another flurry of exchanged baskets and the teams were tied at 71 with 1:20 to play. Kevin Dillard and Chris Johnson were gamely answering the bell every time Lyons or Holloway made a crucial play. As the game wound down, it was going to come down to who could make the plays when they mattered.
Tu Holloway crafted a legend last year and the beginning of this year by being the guy for the big moment. Time after time, he made plays that won games. He wasn't content to be tangentially involved or simply contributing as the game wound down. He was, in the vernacular of the mainstream basketball media, a killer. After the fight though, he seemed changed. Tu still put up decent numbers but the joy he previously showed in cold-bloodedly dispatching opponents was gone. When he tried to take over against Saint Louis, he seemed of two minds, half wanting to attack the rim and half wanting to pull up and shoot. His decisive action, the laser quick first step, and the long range dagger were distant memories. Tu Holloway looked like he had the weight of the world on his back.
Last night though, with the season on the line, Tu came back. The player that local radio host Lance McAlister nicknamed The Closer was on display. In the last 29:40 of the game, Tu didn't turn the ball over. With his team down one with 11 seconds to play, Tu destroyed his man and converted the and one to give Xavier the lead. Kevin Dillard sent the game into overtime, but Xavier fans could sense their leader returning with each possession. Sure enough, with 2:30 to play and Xavier clinging to a one point lead, Tu Holloway made one of those plays.
Tu caught the ball left wing and ran at an Andre Walker ball screen. Kevin Dillard fought through the screen and trailed Tu slightly as the Xavier guard right hand dribbled to the top of the key. As Matt Kavanaugh stepped up to hedge, Tu hesitated slightly, seeming to give Dillard the chance he needed. Kevin Dillard, himself playing a decent game, saw his chance for glory and lunged for the ball that hung tantalizingly high off the floor. In one motion though, Holloway whipped in a complete 360 back to his left and fired a three pointer. It was a preposterous shot to take, no coaching film teaches anything like it and even Holloway admitted in a postgame interview that, while he frequently practices it, he'd never tried it in a game. That didn't matter last night though. The ball was destined to go in, Tu stared at Dillard as he backpedaled back for defense. He didn't say it, but everyone knew. The game was over, Tu Holloway was back.
-What does Coach Mack have up his sleeve? Speed. Already in the 70s in adjusted tempo, Xavier stepped it up even farther last night. Coach Mack promised that his team would start playing faster, and they did. Xavier played at a pace last night, that, if sustained, would make them one of the fastest teams in the nation. With speed comes the risk of turnovers, but Xavier only committed six in the second half last night.
-Is Good Cheeks coming back? Apparently. Lyons went for 20/3/1 and only turned the ball over once in 34 minutes. His 8-13 from the floor was a testament to his vastly improved decision making.
-Can Xavier stop Matt Kavanaugh? 11/11/3 on 4-7 from the floor isn't exactly getting shut down, but Kavanaugh hardly dominated the way he did in Dayton. Travis Taylor was too fast and too strong for Kavanaugh all night and Kenny Frease held his own well in the times when the officials allowed him to play.
Things I liked:
The return of Tu: More than just game icing final seven points, Tu took over the game late. It was a huge boost to see the unquestioned leader of the team taking the ball and making aggressive moves again. 32/6/5 on 8-17/2-3/14-15 is an amazing night, no matter how you slice it. The fact that it seemed like a comeback makes it all the better.
Travis Taylor and Andre Walker: 5/6/0 in 15 minutes isn't amazing, but Taylor attacked the boards like a maniac last night. If not for the foul trouble, his line would look a lot better. Making layups would also help. Walker played 40 intelligent minutes, stayed out of foul trouble and contributed 7/8/1 with only two turnovers. Those two really changed the rebounding story from the first matchup.
Things I didn't like:
The officiating: When Joe Sunderman and Byron Larkin are complaining about the refs, you know it's bad. Fans from both sides decried the inconsistency all night and it especially seemed like Kenny Frease couldn't catch a break. Don't interpret this the wrong way, I don't think the calls favored Dayton or anything like that, but inconsistent officials are a bane to any game.
Nothing else: Enjoy the win, folks. Sometimes the details cloud a good thing.
Next Game: @UMass, Tuesday at 7pm