What happened: Baylor 75 - Xavier 70
When the season begins, you know in your heart as a Xavier fan that it is overwhelmingly likely that it ends here. Xavier has never won the NCAA tournament, and the odds are not in favor of a team outside of the Big Six conferences doing so in any given season. The finality of the buzzer in an NCAA game is harsh; Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease were fixtures of this program for four years, and just like that, they're gone. Andre Walker came in a was a huge part of the success the Musketeers had this season. When the clock hit zeroes, three members of the Xavier family disappeared into the sunset.
The things that hurt Xavier all year were in evidence during this game. Obviously, the most painful of these was getting off to a slow start. I honestly have no idea how a team can struggle with that for an entire season, but Xavier did. Teams that are capable of competing with their opponents don't generally give up 22-4 runs, but Xavier did that today to start off the game. True to form, though, there was no quit in the Musketeers tonight. From 12:12 to the final possession of the half, Xavier outscored Baylor 25-11 and crawled back into the game. Even with Pierre Jackson's three to end the half, X was down only seven at the interval.
Another thing that hampered the Muskies was an unwillingness to feed Kenny Frease for the entire ball game. Frease started out the game strong, looking like one of the only Musketeers who was ready to go from the tip. He ended the first half with 12 points on 5-7/0-0/2-3 shooting. Despite Frease's dominance against Baylor's lighter front line, however, he only got three shot attempts in the second half. Kenny's last field goal attempt of the game was a made basket to cut the Baylor lead to five points with 11:22 to play. From that point forward, Xavier stopped looking to get their most effective player touches in scoring positions, and the team suffered for it.
One of the most important things about a making a big comeback is getting over the hump. It's not enough to cut a big deficit to single digits; mentally, there's a huge boost that is achieved by taking the lead. Until that happens, the other team still holds the advantage. Try as they might, Xavier could never quite get to that point tonight against Baylor. X cut it to four with thirteen and a half to play, to five with eleven and a half to play and again around eight, and to six with one and a half to play, but the team could never quite climb all the way back into the game.
A big part of the rally to cut it to five at the eight-minute mark was Mark Lyons' one-man 6-2 run in just more than a minute. That 63 second span showcased Lyons at his best, as he attacked the bucket for two quick layups and then hit a jumper. In the next five minutes, Xavier went bone dry, and their mercurial junior guard was at the center of that. Cheeks airballed a jumper, missed a layup in traffic, turned the ball over, and committed two fouls. He ended the game with 16/2/2, but it took him 5-15/0-4/6-9 shooting to get there. The King of Upstate often fails to recognize when the hot hand has left him, and that was a large part of Xavier's struggle during a critical stretch of the game.
Of course, Tu Holloway left Xavier in the same role he filled for so long for the team. Despite Kenny's interior power and the sheer volume of shots Lyons put up, Tu led the team with 22/4/3 on 6-13/1-5/9-10 shooting. He's done it for so long that we almost take it for granted from him, but Holloway once again demonstrated his singular ability to score a lot of points without putting up a lot of shots. A lot of that has to do with his ability to get to the line and his execution once he gets there. He ended his Xavier career as the school's all-time leader in free-throw percentage and free throws made. We'll talk more about Tu's remarkable efficiency when we post our official farewell article for him, but suffice it to say that he was a unique player in the college basketball landscape and he will be sorely missed.
The injured players who were limited for Xavier both performed well below their normal standards. Wells and Walker combined for 2/9/2 on 1-8/0-3/0-0 shooting in 41 minutes. The Muskies missed Wells' raw athletic ability and Walker's discipline and hustle on the glass. All credit to both players for trying to gut it out, but they were both clearly limited. Jeff Robinson and Justin Martin did their best to fill in, but Xavier was always just short of grabbing enough boards to turn the momentum of the game wholly in their favor.
Odds and ends:
-Xavier made effective use of ball pressure during the game, getting 20 points off of Baylor's 13 turnovers.
-The Muskies missed their first 11 threes. In a game that ended so close, that was a gutting performance.
-After being hampered by foul trouble throughout the year, Big Kenny played 35 minutes without picking up a single one tonight.
-I know this is looking ahead, but I liked what I saw out of Dee during the tournament and Justin Martin tonight. Xavier, as always, will be ready to go next season.
(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.)
-"Is Dez playing? Gotta have him."
-"Not a good start."
-"Looking bad. It's been a good year. Time to reload and get ready for next year."
-"We look like a mid-major so far."
-"We have to pick up the tempo. To do that, we have to stop them and get a rebound."
-"Box out. Three chances! At least hack them."
-"Wells looks pained."
-"Lyons can't make a stinkin' layup!"
-"Feed Kenny. Was that an airplane sighting?"
-"What's happening? We're stuck watching a tornado warning here."
-"Tornado. Fine, let's get back to the game."
-"0-10 on threes. Wow."
-"Got to get after it now!"
-"Got to keep going to the hole. Need to be sticky on D."
-"Maybe we should guard Acy."
-"Two stretches of over four minutes without a bucket. Can't win that way. Tu deserves a better ending."
-"We cut it to five and Mack called time. We've stunk since then."
-"We could have had them if we had made anything in the first half."
-"Dug too big a hole this time."
-"Tu will go down as one of Xavier's all-time favorites."
That's the last boxscore breakdown you'll see until November. It was a heck of a season for Xavier; definitely one that won't soon be forgotten. Stay tuned for Brad's narrative recap of the game tomorrow. We'll be back with an autopsy of the season, special farewells for the seniors, and a look ahead at what to expect over the summer and on into next year. The season may be over, but we'll be here all summer, and we hope you will be too.