What happened: Xavier 67 - Notre Dame 63
There were a lot of factors that went into the performance of the Xavier Musketeers that culminated in a victory over Notre Dame just after midnight on Saturday morning. We'll cover those in a moment, but first it needs to be said that this win comes down in large part to the lessons that the irrepressible Tu Holloway learned last March against Marquette. Both were games in which it was obvious at some level that Tu was going to have to lead the line for Xavier, but he showed against the Irish that he had learned to pick his spots. In possession in which he was the only Muskie to touch the ball last night, he went 3-5 shooting and scored nine points; in similar situations in the tournament last year, he was 0-4 with no points and four turnovers. He also learned that he can't afford to be denied the paint. He had 14 points in the lane last night after only shooting one time from in there a year before. The final element of Tu's performance, however comes from somewhere farther back that last March. "I told [Coach Mack] somewhere around five or six minutes left that, if it comes down to us needing a big play, I'm going to be the one who makes the big shot to win the game," he said afterward in the locker room. "And... it happened." Tu ended the game with 25/2/2, a steal, and a block on 10-15/2-4/3-4, but it was the final shot that he had called five or six minutes before that will be burned in the retinas of Notre Dame fans for a long time.
Early on, it was Big Kenny Frease who was looking to be Tu's running mate on the night. Xaiver once again worked to establish the big man in the post out of the gates, and he responded by finishing with an authority X fans have not often seen out of him. Frease looked intent on getting all the way to the rim, and his first three made baskets were all two-handed dunks, two of which came in heavy traffic. His final shot attempt of the night came off of a Dee Davis assist with six seconds in the half. Though Kenny only finished that one with one hand, his ensuing stare down of the Notre Dame player who had deigned to challenge him send the message that he was not going to be supressed. Coach Mack's strategic shift on defense in the second half to get Notre Dame out of their "burn offense" meant Frease didn't get much time on the floor after the interval, but he finished with 10/3/0 on 4-8/0-0/2-2 shooting.
Dez Wells stepped up and played with an intensity that belied his status as a freshman last night. I questioned in the preview if Notre Dame had anyone capable of handling his athletic ability, and the answer was a resounding "no." Wells' leaping ability dominated the glass, and his proved difficult to contain on the offensive end. He ended the night with 14/11/1 and a steal (and no turnovers) on 3-6/1-2/7-11 shooting. X needed him to step up, because Mark Lyons had an off night. Cheeks' 8/1/6 with 3 steals came with 4 turnovers and a 3-9/2-4/0-0 shooting line. Fortunately for all involved, Lyons hit a couple of big threes for Xavier and had the sense to drive the ball with less than a minute left and Xavier down 63-60. He's going to need to step back up for the Muskies to make the Sweet 16.
Kudos are due to Jeff Robinson for his defensive performance last night. Though his line (2/4/0 on 1-5/0-0/0-0 shooting) is not going to result in his being feted with accolades, his athletic ability on the defensive end gave Xavier the luxury of pressuring the ball on the defensive end when Cooley was content to stand with it on his hip 30 feet out. Robinson has taken some abuse here and everywhere else on the internet for being inconsistent on offense and out of touch on defense, but he came up aces in the second half for Xavier when the Muskies had to be able to force Notre Dame to do something other than saunter around at half court for 25 seconds on each possession.
One of the most telling numbers from last night was Xavier's 18-27 performance from the free throw line. Notre Dame was one of the best teams in the country in not sending opponents to the line on defense this year; only once had they given up more free throw attempts than Xavier's 27 last night, and that came back on December 4th in a loss to Maryland. That Xavier was able to get to the line 27 times shows how well X got the ball into the paint against Notre Dame's defense. Andre Walker got to the line 10 times by being active off the ball and around the offensive glass; Dez Wells got there eleven times by not settling for jumpers off the dribble and getting to the boards with his leaping ability. Xavier's execution at the stripe still left something to be desired, but the team's relentless commitment to getting the ball close to the bucket paid off just enough to get Xavier through to the next round.
Odds and ends:
-Tu Holloway had the team's only blocked shot, probably in an attempt to prove that there is indeed nothing he can't do.
-Despite being down 10 at one point in the second half, Xavier never resorted to volume shooting from deep. The team's 5-10 performance from beyond the arc is a testament to its patience in waiting for good looks as much as its ability to knock them down.
-Xavier went almost 20 minutes through the middle of the game without forcing a Notre Dame turnover, then forced eight of them in the critical ten-minute stretch that began with the Irish up 48-38. I believe that's what scholars refer to as "zipping 'em up."
-Young players: don't crash the offensive boards from behind the shooter on a free throw. Not worth it.
(My dad is an old-school basketball guy and a die-hard X fan, and he and I text throughout the games from time to time. His opinions can be both insightful and entertaining, especially pulled from their context. Below is a sampling of his offerings tonight.)
-"Airplane is out on the first bucket!"
-"Tu from 25!!"
-"Wells in the open floor!"
-"Giving up threes, again."
-"Well, now we're getting worked inside."
-"BK saves Lyons!"
-"Why does Rob ever shoot?"
-"BK has to quit hedging."
-"I can't take it. Halftime. We are letting them dictate the pace. We have to play faster. We are just standing around on D."
-"Kenny is too slow to hedge. Make him stop or get him out!"
-"Stick a fork in 'em."
-"6/12 FT. Pathetic."
-"Walk is awful from the line."
-"Got to pick up the pace. Be fast, but don't hurry."
-"BK's hedge ineptitude is going to cost X the game. Write it down."
-"Wells is a beast! Carried Lyons and BK!!!!"
-"Had it all the way! Always loved those guys."
-"The calls [late in the game] were excellent. You have to play by the rules the whole game.Cooley knocks Davis to the floor and Davis gets the foul? That was bad."
There it is, gang. Obviously, Brad already got the recap up (you did read it, right?). Xavier will be back in action at 7:45pm Sunday against Lehigh with a bid to the Sweet 16 on the line. We'll have that game preview up this evening. Enjoy the other games and the beautiful weather.