The story of this game begins in the paint, and it begins with Tennessee's two big men. Coming in, there was some concern regarding whether or not Xavier would be able to handle the combined bulk of Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, two highly-skilled players who both check in at 6'9", 260. The pair did combine for 8 of the Vols' 14 offensive boards, but their aggregate line of 11/14/2 with 3 blocks and 7 turnovers on 5-14/0-1/1-4 shooting was testimony to the collective efforts of the Muskies' front line. Tennessee is a very good rebounding team with these two guys on the court, and Xavier more than held their own on the glass.
Xavier's man for the big occasion was once again sophomore guard Semaj Christon. With Dee Davis still not fully recovered from his concussion, Christon was called upon to play 39 minutes, and he responded to the tune of 18/3/2 on 7-13/0-0/4-10 (more on that in a minute) shooting. Semaj's approach was not subtle - when the moment called for it, he just got on the ball and ran at his opponent - but his first step gave him the space he needed and ability to convert difficult finishes was enough to carry the day for X.
With 13 minutes left in the game, Tennessee was on the tail end of a two-minute burst that had cut Xavier's lead from nine to two. Myles Davis (13/3/2 on 3-5/2-4/5-6) hit a three off a Brandon Randolph assist, then James Farr answered an Antonio Barton jumper with a jumper and layup to push the lead back to seven. The next time UT cut it to a one-possession game, they were fouling to send Xavier to the line with less than 30 seconds left.
Speaking of Farr, he worked his tail off in the paint on his way to 4/3/0 with a block on 2-3/0-0/0-0 shooting. His line was only marred by the fact that he picked up 4 fouls in just 7 minutes of play. Don't let that distract you from the fact that, while he was out there, he was a thoroughly disruptive force. Erik Stenger pitched in 6/7/0 in 19 minutes and Isaiah Philmore was good for 9/6/2 as Xavier's forwards did the dirty work in the trenches that made the difference between victory and defeat tonight.
It also bears mention that Matt Stainbrook played 32 minutes on the evening and put up 12/9/2 with 3 blocks on 6-15/0-0/0-1 shooting. His shooting line is not superficially impressive, but he forced Tennessee to help to him on defense, which opened up the paint for Xavier's cutters as the game went on. The Stain Train's court vision was top-notch, and he could have easily had 4 or 5 assists if the Muskies had been finishing a little bit better around the rim. Stainbrook provides a back-to-the-basket big man who can be trusted to pass out of tough defense if the situation warrants, and the Muskies did a good job of running the offense through him last night.
Finally, Xavier's ability to do the little things is going to be something to keep an eye on going forward. The team's 13-24 performance from the line is not only frankly pathetic, but it is also bolstered by the fact that Myles Davis was 5-5 from the stripe down the stretch to ice the game. The team also committed 16 turnovers, including 4 each from Stainbrook and Myles Davis. Thankfully only 4 of those came in the second half, because the first half was close to unwatchable. If the Vols hadn't been equally committed to horrible free throw shooting (7-19), silly mistakes would have cost Xavier a good win. As it stands, these things need to be ironed out before they turn a close victory into a wrenching defeat.
Odds and ends:
-Jalen Reynolds played 3 minutes and picked up two fouls, meaning he and James Farr combined for 6 fouls in 10 minutes of game time. Farr's came from being too rigid on the defensive end; Reynolds's come from being way too enthusiastic.
-Xavier's OReb% of 41% led to 13 second-chance points, and the Muskies outscored UT 44-32 in the paint.
-I can't say enough good things about Brandon Randolph's speed and passing, but his attempted alley-oop with Xavier trying to salt the game away late was probably a little silly. I don't see him making that mistake again.
-Muskies not named Myles Davis went 0-4 from deep and are 4-12 on the season; there were times at which Xavier missed having a second shooter out there last night.
-"How can we be that bad from the line?" Embarrassing to only be leading by 4."
-An ode to his true love, the Wisconsin Swing offense: "Bo and the boys lead Florida by 3 at the half." "4 farm boys starting for Bo." "Swing is a beautiful thing."
-"3-12 FT for Tenn; X like."
-"I've got a head cold. I was missing Martin, so I must also have a raging fever."
-"This is no fun to watch; I've already seen enough bad basketball to last a lifetime."
-"U G L Y"
-"Stain is an animal."
-After Semaj missed an FT: "Why oh why?"
-"Oh good, we're in the bonus."
-After Stainbrook picked out Semaj on a back cut: "Stain for point guard!"
-"Hey, how about we leave that guy open for another 3?"
-"I hope Martin is back soon (how sad is that?!). Goodnight."