For 34 minutes last night, the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin played the kind of game that every undersized, slightly under talented college player dreams about. Xavier was at home and clinging to a five point lead against a small, scrappy team that simply would not go away. The Lumberjacks were raining down threes (more on that later) and a Tanner Clayton dunk had just forced a Xavier timeout. Unfortunately for the game Lumberjacks, there's a reason that games like this reside mostly in dreams.
Xavier has left back to back lesser teams in games since their opening demolition of NAU. Long Beach State was within eight in the second half, and last night it was SFA withing six with only five minutes to play. The difference between this Xavier team and last year's edition, though, has a been a notable lack of panic. Last year Bowling Green, Evansville, Seton Hall, Iowa, and Tennessee all played games in which Xavier's inability to remain calm down the stretch came back to bite them. At times that frenetic energy led to spirited comebacks, so it wasn't all bad, but it wasn't conducive to slowly winding down a game.
Another recent criticism of Xavier has been an unwillingness to pound the ball inside and just bludgeon an opponent. Last night, they did just that. Matt Stainbrook (20/6/1) had been struggling to get touches as SFA had pressured high on ballhandlers to prevent easy post feeds. While that left the Lumberjacks open to the off the dribble improvisations of Trevon Bluiett (16/3/0), Dee Davis (9/2/12), and Brandon Randolph (6/3/2), it also achieved the desired effect of keeping Xavier's bigs at bay. In the last five minutes, though, Stainbrook scored six of his points and finally overcame the defense. That, more than anything, was the edge the Musketeers needed and it helped them close a game that could have turned into a race of the guards.
Not that Xavier's guard play had exactly let them down last night. The Musketeers only turned the ball over nine times despite constant pressure from SFA. The A/TO ration of 22/9 is undoubtedly one that Coach Mack will be pleased with against a team that defends so aggressively. Dee Davis and JP Macura (7/2/1) each scored seven to lead the way in the first half and push Xavier to a seven point lead. Those points were vital, because SFA was 5-9 from behind the arc and Xavier was a disturbing 3-7 from the line. Xavier's bigs had scored a less than sterling 10 points in 32 combined minutes on the floor.
The second half was all about the continued emergence of Trevon Bluiett. Each time SFA made a run, Bluiett answered. 1-3 in the first half, the freshman guard/forward went a perfect 5-5 in the second half and scored 13 of his points in that stanza. More impressive even than Trevon's numbers are the way he gets them in the flow of the offense. Unwilling to force his shot, he waited throughout the first half and picked his spots in the second. Bluiett frequently gives the impression of someone who cannot be stopped unless by nefarious means. Bluiett currently ranks 15th in the nation in offensive efficiency and is shooting 87.5% from inside the arc. Those numbers will almost certainly drop, but Bluiett doesn't give the impression of someone on the edge of a performance precipice. If anything, he looks more comfortable every time he steps on the floor.
All of that may have been moot though, if Xavier had found it's old friend with the game in the balance. Feeding Stainbrook in the post was good, but it was the defense that hammered down the win. After the Tanner Clayton dunk with made it a five point game with 5:44 to go, SFA didn't score again until they trailed by 20 with 58 seconds to go. In that asphyxiating 15-0 run the Lumberjacks went 0-7, turned the ball over twice, and watched the game vanish before they fully knew what happened. It may not have been a full zipping up, but Xavier ratcheted up the defense when it matter. Another game, another step forward for a young team laden with talent.
- How does Xavier match up? Not well, at first. XU struggled to feed the post and allowed the Lumberjacks to hoist 25 threes. Last year the Musketeers allowed teams to get 30% of their points from behind the arc, this year that's up to an alarming 36%. Xavier's opponents are also making 39% of their threes and taking fully a third of their shots from deep. Some of that may be a function of teams trying to come back, but it bears watching. Last night, Xavier had a hard time coming to grips with the speed and motion of the Lumberjack offense. Outside of Matt Stainbrook, the Musketeer bigs were very bad.
- Does the team need a lead dog? Not right now. Matt Stainbrook buried the game when he needed to late, and Trevon Bluiett carried the offense for large portions of the second half. Remy Abell (12/2/2) contributed, Dee Davis moved the ball well despite turning it over five times, and only James Farr (0/6/1) looked out of sync. Add in the 22 assists on 33 makes, and you get the picture of a team operating as a collective. Thanks to that, it hasn't been necessary to watch one player try to kill a game. Most impressively, Xavier racked up four assists on the last five field goals of the game. Even in crunch time, the ball kept moving.
- Where does Larry Austin Jr. fit in? No minutes in this game does not augur well for the freshman guard, but Brandon Randolph and Dee Davis handled the offense well and there wasn't really garbage time in this game, despite the final score.
Tweet of the game:
It's hard to beat a "ZipEmUp" from a cardiologist.
Xavier men's soccer takes on Indiana tomorrow in the NCAA tournament. The game is in Bloomington, but the drive will be well worth your time. If you can't make it, the game will be televised on the Big Ten Network at 1pm.