Xavier's defense took one step forward tonight. With one single step, Xavier held St. John's to 2-12 from behind the arc while the game was in the balance and forced 14 turnovers. That one, microscopic, blatantly obvious adjustment was all it took to transform one of the worst defenses in the conference into a unit that forced a .367/.125/.538 shooting line from their opponent tonight. With the caveat that the Red Storm are definitely not the team to measure three point defensive prowess against (they are 170th in the nation and rarely attempt threes), it was still a clear adjustment in the right direction.
The other major difference in Xavier's play tonight was the emergence of the man-monster known as Jalen Reynolds (17/16/0). His last dunk came as he wore renowned shot blocker Chris Obepka like a cape, but he still slammed it down with authority. Reynolds was forced into extended action because of the "foul" trouble of Matt Stainbrook (13/1/0) and he responded like a man possessed. No Xavier fan can fail to be excited by what they saw out of the freshman today. Tour de force actually seems like a significant understatement.
Xavier came out in this game clearly intending to still be in contention at the first tv timeout, a marked improvement from previous Big East road games. At that point, the score was 6-6 and Matt Stainbrook already had four. Stainbrook also scored the next four before deferring to Semaj Christon (15/7/7) for the next five. Xavier actually held the lead until 8:11 left in the first half, reversing a trend of playing themselves into such a hole that no amount of second half work would get out of it. St. John's is red hot right now though, and they battled back, stretching their own lead to 24-21 with five minutes to play.
After that St. John's burst, Xavier wrested back control over what was turning into a very ugly game. Xavier took the lead back at the 4:34 mark and then scored exactly a bucket a minute from then until the half. That offense and a St. John's scoring drought of over four minutes were enough to send the Musketeers into the halftime locker room with the lead. It wasn't enough to send the squads there happily though, as a tussle for the ball between Christon and Rysheed Jordan turned into technicals (certainly deserved) for both. The fight from the lead Musketeer was certainly nice to see.
Whether that sparked Xavier at the half or it was something else, the Musketeers came back out of the tunnel ready to take the game by the throat. After a three minute stretch in which neither team scored, Xavier went on a modest 7-0 run to push the lead to 46-38. Key in that run was a three point bomb from Dee Davis (6/0/9) and a thunderous, because that's all he does, dunk from Jalen Reynolds. After a Rysheed Jordan jumper, Reynolds answered with his third jumper of the game and an and one. Reynolds was rumored to have a varied game when he was recruited, and he flashed it all tonight.
Two free throws from Isaiah Philmore (11/5/0) pushed Xavier's lead to 51-41, but the offense stalled a bit at that point, only getting up one shot in the next two minutes. In between Xavier's made field goals, St. John's cut the lead back to four and showed why they had won nine of eleven coming in. Their defensive effort was relentless and, with the crowd back in it, it looked like the Red Storm were going to come all the way back. Matt Stainbrook scored after slipping behind the back line of the defense and receiving a great pass from Christon. Four seconds later, though, Stainbrook had fouled out for...something.
That mysterious call left Xavier holding a six point lead without their anchor in the paint. St. John's scored, but Philmore answered with a reverse layup. An completely inexplicable 18 foot jumper just ten seconds into the shot clock from JaKarr Sampson and a free throw miss by Orlando Sanchez left the door open for Xavier to ice the game. Dee Davis did just that with his two free throws, and Xavier handled their business from the line from that point on. Fittingly, Jalen Reynolds capped his 3-3 night from the line with 11 seconds left. With his coming out party, Xavier got a win they desperately needed.
- How many threes will St. John's take? While the final box will suggest that the Red Storm continued the trend of teams firing away against Xavier, it's worth noting that the final four attempts came after the game was beyond doubt. Xavier held the Johnnies to 2-12 when it mattered. Taking that one step forward on defense and closing harder on shooters made all the difference in the world tonight. St. John's doesn't live behind the arc though, so don't take this to mean the problem is completely solved.
- Can Xavier recover? With St. John's taking the ball down low and letting the packed defense do it's thing, Xavier was always likely to get things back going defensively. What they may not have always been likely to do was hold a team to 32% from the floor in the second half. The Red Storm offense inexplicably focuses on two point jumpers and they did that here again today, scoring only 22 points in the paint, six from behind the arc, and none on fast breaks. Seven more points came at the line, which means 18 of St. John's 53 came from two point jumpshots. With a team willing to do that, the Musketeers were more than willing to devour them defensively.
- Will the Musketeers start well on the road? Yes, finally. Xavier led for the first 12 minutes of the game, trailed by no more than four in the first half, and led after 20 minutes had passed. That was vital for a team that had been routed early on the road repeatedly in Big East play. Xavier was engaged, energetic, and on the front foot from the word go. It was nice to see.
Tweet of the game:
Jalen Reynolds stole the show tonight.
@BannersParkway Been telling you how dirty he is going to be.— Matthew Malone (@Ledcow) February 26, 2014
@BannersParkway He might be the missing piece to go with Stainbrook. So exciting to imagine his future!— Greg Chandler (@Xavier1Greg) February 26, 2014
@BannersParkway I was critical of his inability to corral the rebounds but he's proved me wrong tonight— Andrew Powell (@bald_so_hard) February 26, 2014
And of course, Dayton got pummeled in a game they had to win. I'll leave you with Brian Leibforth:
@BannersParkway Dayton gonna Dayton— Brian Leibforth (@bleibforth) February 26, 2014