As this bitter cold winter stretches interminably on and February threatens to last half the year, it's nice to have a positive distraction. Last year, that may have been your basement greenhouse or the local book club, but it wasn't Xavier basketball. With Providence coming into the Cintas at 6-4 in the Big East and Xavier riding a three game loser, it looked like this year was in danger of becoming another reason to look forward to baseball season.
The difference between this season and last though, is marked. No longer a freshman trying to carry a team on his own, Semaj Christon (12/2/3) has evolved into a sophomore with the propensity to be a killer when his help arrives. Saturday, finally, it did just that. A lot will be made of Christon's robbery of Bryce Cotton to seal the game, but that wouldn't have been nearly such a big play if the supporting cast hadn't set the table. In a game that Xavier desperately needed to win, Matt Stainbrook (13/9/5) and Justin Martin (13/3/2) did enough to free Xavier's star guard up to dramatically clinch the game.
Old problems reared their head in the first half as the Musketeers allowed Providence to take nine three pointers, three of which rattled in. Josh Fortune, profiting from the shooting space Dee Davis lack of size gave him, came out especially hot and poured in 12 in the first stanza. A 8-0 Xavier run was erased and the Friars managed a respectable 42% from the floor in this first period to keep themselves in the game and even take a 32-31 lead to the locker room at half time. It wasn't the first half that shaped the game though, it was the second. Xavier finally found its fearsome defense and, just as importantly, some secondary scoring options.
Matt Stainbrook had shouldered the load in the first half, when he scored nine of his 13. That threat opened up the floor in the start of the second half, when Martin picked up seven points in the first 6:40 of the half. While those numbers are not eye-popping by any stretch of the imagination, the ability of Xavier to go somewhere other than Christon for offense paid dividends on a night when the sophomore only got eight shots up. The bench also helped pick up the scoring slack, going for 17 points, eight from deposed starter Isaiah Philmore (8/8/1), and seven from Myles Davis (7/0/1) who actually got the ball to go in the basket.
All of that got Xavier to the 8:21 mark with a 54-48 lead and the ball with a chance to put the game on ice. Unfortunately, just as the balanced offense arrived, it disappeared. That's not to say the Musketeers reverted to Cleveland Cavaliers era LeBron James ball, where Christon would simply dribble, dribble, and dribble some more before scoring. No, the Musketeers just quit scoring altogether. Anyone. At all. When Christon drained a free throw with exactly a minute to play, it ended a 7:21 scoring drought in which Xavier somehow surrendered only four points of their lead. That sentence makes no sense at all, but it's true. Xavier went over seven minutes without scoring, seven minutes in which they went 0-8 from the floor, and didn't give up their six point margin.
And that brings us back to Christon's steal. Xavier's defense, as Joel mentioned in the Breakdown, had clamped down to choke out the Friar offense, but the lead was a razor thin two point margin. Cotton had spent the entire game, and the entire game at the Dunkin Donuts Center, starting the offense on the left side before making his move. With 48 seconds left Cotton went right and then tried a sweeping, rock-a-bye style crossover back to his left. Christon was standing in perfect position and gambled absolutely everything that he had read his man correctly. He had, and the steal and subsequent feed to Philmore sealed a crucial, crucial win for Xavier. A piece of art it wasn't, but the balanced attack and the sophomore's defense made the difference when it mattered.
- Who guards Bryce Cotton? Coach Mack put Semaj on Cotton and took his chances with Dee Davis matched up on the 6-5 Josh Fortune. While Fortune scored more than ten over his season average, Christon more than made up for that by holding Cotton to just nine points, two in the second half. Cotton came in averaging 27 over his last four games, so that move made all the difference.
- Will a third contributor step up? This is going to be a question for the rest of the season, because it's just so hard to count on Justin Martin to arrive game in and out. That said, he was a force against Providence and he, Stainbrook, and Semaj combined for 38.
- Is fatigue piling up for Providence? The legs feed the wolf. Xavier's defense was much better down the stretch, but some of the Friar's 2-13 from the field when the game was in the balance must surely come from the fact that Cotton played every minute, LaDontae Henton only missed one, and Friars got a grand total of 31 bench minutes in the game, 29 from Carson Derosiers. That's not great man management.
Tweet of the game:
@BannersParkway Stainbrook got his last bucket because of hustle. Couldn't do that couple years ago. Proof that his hard work paid off.— Russ Simeone (@ESPN_Sims_XU) February 8, 2014
I'd say Russ pretty much nailed it. Matt's comment about being the hungrier Howie is, for those of you who may not have known, a reference to a pizza chain up here in NE Ohio.