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Xavier v. Tennessee: Recap

Make your free throws! Xavier didn't, but they did manage to hold off a very good Tennessee team thanks to 18 from Semaj Christon.

Free throw hero, Myles Davis.
Free throw hero, Myles Davis.
Joe Robbins

There is no reason to start this recap with anything other than the glaring issue of the day: free throws. To try to launch into some sort of game story without mentioning what would become the story would be disingenuous. Xavier shot a shockingly bad 66.7% from the line last year, and they lost games because of it. Against Gardner-Webb they were an appalling 22-40 from the line, but weren't made to pay the price. Tonight the Musketeers went 13-24 and very nearly threw away what should turn out to be a very good win because of it. Free throw like that will lose games that matter. If you don't believe me, ask John Calipari or any of his Memphis teams. While that effort from the line was despicable, it only was aggravating because of what this team did everywhere else on the court.

Last year Xavier rolled into Knoxville fresh off a loss to Wofford (that would be the Jeff Robinson foul game) and took a double digit second half lead that they somehow blew. I called it "a cornucopia of misery, it was nothing but a pulchitrudinous exhibition of abhorrent basketball," at the time. I feared more of the same today if Xavier didn't come ready to play against a Volunteers squad that had a meaningful size advantage. It must be said that an Isaiah Philmore (9/6/2) three point attempt isn't how most games are going to start, but it's how this one did. After that Xavier's quiksilver guards took a turn feeding the post and the Musketeers jumped to a 6-1 lead.

Tennessee's bigs and how Xavier played them was going to be the story of this game, and it was clear from the jump that the way Coach Mack intended to play them was aggressively. Matt Stainbrook (12/9/2) probably won't save a lot of clippings from his 6-15 shooting performance, but the fact that the Musketeers were determined to feed him the ball inside marked both an aggressiveness in this game and a willingness to learn from last year's frequent abandonment of Travis Taylor. After Xavier took a 10-3 lead at the 14:55 mark, the teams lapsed into offensive doldrums, with no one scoring for nearly five minutes. With 5:23 to play, Xavier led 19-9, but hadn't exactly put the hammer to UT. Part of that was a 2-6 showing from the line, and part of it was a rather troubling 12 turnovers that the team committed in the first half.

The reason that Xavier could do both those things, and shoot only 41% from the floor, but still end up with a 27-20 halftime lead was a completely stifling defense. Tennessee only committed seven turnovers, but shot 26% from the floor, and 1-9 from deep. The Musketeers challenged every shot, no matter where it was being taken. They didn't challenge many free throw attempts, but Tennessee still shot a putrid 3-12 from the stripe. It wasn't a beautiful half of basketball, but the Musketeers were undoubtedly happy with the result.

The teams punched and counterpunched after the break, but it was quickly clear that the defenses simply weren't as sharp. When Myles Davis (13/3/2) buried a three and then James Farr (!) scored two quick buckets to make the lead 46-39 with around 11 minutes to play, it looked like Xavier may have weathered the run that had brought Tennessee within as little as two. With 6:41 to play, Xavier pushed the gap out to eight when Matt Stainbrook was rejected twice but, staying with the play tenaciously, corralled both rebounds before sweeping in a reverse layup. Three minutes later The StainTrain found Semaj Christon (18/3/2) for an and one that brought Byron Larkin well past the edge of impartiality and pushed the lead out to nine.

And then things started to go sideways. Christon could have made the lead ten there with a made free throw, but he missed. He actually missed six of the ten he attempted tonight. That's an excusable number in junior high ball, but not at any level above that. He and Isaiah Philmore combined to go 2-4 over the next minute, and UT hung within nine. Then it was seven. Then Semaj overdribbled and turned the ball over. Then the lead was four thanks to a blazing hot Jordan McRae. All of the sudden, we had a close game. Brandon Randolph (5/3/4) and Myles Davis then split four, and another McRae three ball made it a one possession game. Thanks to Xavier's primary ballhandlers going 3-7 from the line over a two minute stretch, a lead that was ten at the 2:40 now felt very tenuous.

Thankfully, Myles Davis buried his next four attempts from the line and Jordan McRae didn't become the latest Sportscenter hero despite sinking yet another three (Tennessee was 7-10 from deep in the second half). Davis handled the pressure well and made the simplest of all basketball shots those last four times to tie up the win. Closer than it should have been, but still a win.

Three Answers:

- Can Xavier contain Tennessee down low? Yes, and definitively so. Stokes and Maymon combined to for 11/14/2. Ndiaye was so ineffective that he played seven minutes and scored nary a point to go with his four boards. If anyone out there saw Erik Stenger (6/7/0) and James Farr (4/3/0) playing as well as they did tonight, go ahead and give yourself a big pat on the back. Stenger fought Tennessee's bigs to an absolute standstill with an effort that may very well still have him in an ice bath.

- Who can play? Myles Davis, thankfully, was ready to go. Justin Martin and Dee Davis were both still battling concussion issues and couldn't play. There's never any reason to rush back from a brain injury, so here's to hoping that Martin and Davis both feel well again soon.

- Will Xavier push the pace? Not really. Xavier instead harried the Volunteers in the half court and attacked their big men in offensive sets. Jeronne Maymon played 27 minutes and collected four fouls, while Jarnell Stokes managed only 20 minutes before his five fouls did for him. Just because Xavier didn't race up and down the court doesn't mean they didn't play fast though. Randolph and Christon both attacked the defense with the dribble today when Xavier was going well. When that vertical play was hindered, the Musketeers struggled to score out of face up halfcourt sets. That will be worth watching this year.

Tweet of the Game:

Next Game:

Friday at 8pm, vs. the Eagles of Morehead State.