For a team that was a lowly-regarded as Xavier was at the beginning of the year, getting to the cusp of the NCAA tournament is a massive accomplishment. Of course, it's hardly time to hang it up and declare the season a win, but we'll discuss matters at hand in a different post. Right now, I want to take a look at a couple of the most pivotal plays of the year and how they were instrumental in getting Xavier to where they are now.
The first one came in the Crosstown Shootout. It's easy to forget now, but Xavier was on the brink of a crisis going into that game. Literally all the good feeling from a 5-0 start had been erased by a disastrous trip to the Bahamas. Even the win over Tennessee had been offset by getting demolished by the Volunteers over the Thanksgiving weekend. After extremely narrow home wins over Bowling Green and Evansville, there were more questions than answers heading into the Shootout.
To say the game started well would be an understatement. Xavier ripped open a huge lead and looked to be salting the game away in the second half. After a Justin Martin three-pointer made the lead 16, though, the wheels threatened to come off. Three fouls on on possession ended up sending Titus Rubles to the line. Xavier came up empty in four straight trips down the floor as UC forced three turnovers.
Six quick points and suddenly the game was within ten with 13:34 left. UC looked to have forced another stop when the ball rotated to Brandon Randolph behind the arc with 2 seconds left on the shot clock. Randolph was shooting 1-18 from deep to that point in the year, UC had all the momentum, and they were about to cut the lead to single digits.
Randolph rose up and buried it. Suddenly, things snapped into focus for Xavier. They held UC scoreless for nearly seven minutes while ripping off an 11-0 run to bury the game. The arena went from tensing up for a storming finish to reveling/mourning an ugly blowout, and Xavier went on to capture a resume win. And it all pivoted when a freshman who couldn't shoot at all buried a bloodless three from the corner to reverse the momentum of the contest.
Fast forward three months. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune deposited Xavier right on the bubble heading into the first round of the Big East tournament. Everyone thinks Xavier probably needs a win against Marquette to get in, and it turns out that assumption was correct. The biggest question of the day is what X is going to do against the Golden Eagles at both ends with talismanic big man Matt Stainbrook on the bench with an injured MCL.
News came out about three hours before the tip that Stainbrook would participate in the game in a limited fashion. Jalen Reynolds would still get the start. With 6:46 off the clock in the first half, Xavier fans' fears were being realized. The Muskies couldn't crack Marquette's defense, and the zone Coach Mack had gone to in order to support his bigs against Davante Gardner was making Deonte Burton look like a lottery pick.
It was time for Coach Mack to, in the words of Eddie Vedder, "rise up and throw down [his] ace in the hole." Bad knee and all, the Stain Train was leaving the station.
It took one possession for his influence to be felt. Xavier worked the ball around before throwing the ball to Matt on the post. As the defense shifted to adjust for this new variable, Stainbrook kicked out to Dee Davis, who was already 0-2 from deep on the night.
Dee didn't hesitate, and by the time his signature high-arcing shot dropped through the net some eight seconds after he released it, I was literally breathing a sigh of relief. Matt was here, and he was going to save us. From the point at which Stainbrook checked in for the first time, a Xavier team that was trailing by seven outplayed Marquette by ten points and secured a much-needed final win.
In a season where the margin between play-in game and NIT berth is this tight, there are bound to be a lot of big moments. Those were the two that stood out to me; what were yours?