I'm breathing again. I think. In what is always the biggest game of the year, the Xavier Musketeers went on the road, into the teeth of their archrival, in virtual bubble desperation mode, and grabbed a huge win. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't efficient, it wasn't a work of basketballing art, but it was a win. Xavier has been soft at times this year, but when they absolutely had to have two free throws and a stop, they got them.
You could be forgiven for being a Xavier fan and thinking you'd seen this one before. Myles (12/4/1) and Dee Davis (16/3/8) had carried the Musketeers to a 12 point first half lead that Gary Clark seemed determined to singlehandedly erase. Little by little, UC crawled back into the game. Xavier would stanch the flow for a moment, only to see the Bearcats pound the ball inside and score again. At times the comeback felt like a landslide, inexorable if not fast, swallowing the Musketeers. Sure enough, with 1:10 to go, Cincinnati took the lead. The Crosstown Shootout and the season were hanging in the balance.
After the way Xavier played the first 20 minutes, though, they didn't need to be. The Musketeers in the first half held UC to 34% shooting and 1-9 from deep with the defensive effort the season has been begging for. That wouldn't have mattered all that much, except Xavier also ripped apart Cincinnati's much lauded defense to the tune of 8-15 from deep and 36 points. The Musketeers closed the half on an 18-6 run that featured two three pointers each from the Davis brothers. Those two makes pushed Dee to 4-4 on the night after he came in shooting just 26.4% on the year.
Dee has taken some stick from the Xavier faithful. Entering the Shootout, his three point percentage was the lowest of his career, his minutes were piling up and fatigue was setting, and, most troublingly, he was taking fully two field goals per game more than any other point in his career. It looked like Xavier's undersized point man had finally hit the edge of his seemingly limitless drive. Against, UC though, Dee answered the bell almost incomprehensibly. 40 minutes, 16 points, 5-5 from behind the arc, a single turnover, eight assists, three rebounds, and a performance for Shootout history. Unfortunately, Xavier very nearly threw it away.
Long scoring droughts were the calling card of last year's Xavier team, but one reared its head at the very worst of times in the biggest non-conference game of the year. Going a shocking 12:16 with just one field goal will lose you most games, but Xavier managed to hold the Bearcats to only 17 points in that stretch. That span saw some truly dreadful play from the Musketeers, who could not find the rhythm that came so easily in the first half. UC's long and athletic front line gave Matt Stainbrook (7/6/4) and Trevon Bluiett (2/1/0) fits all night. Stainbrook could not get a shot away cleanly thanks to big-big doubles, and Bluiett simply could not find the space he usually craves to get some momentum. When Clark's 14th and final points fell through the hoop, it felt a lot like a nail.
It wasn't though, because Dee Davis had a final act left in him in his last Shootout. Xavier's point guard brought the ball down on the left and found Matt Stainbrook high on that side before curling all the way though the lane and coming up right wing. The ball barely hit his hands again before he arced in a three pointer that gave Xavier the lead back and provided the answer that was desperately needed. On the other end, Farad Cobb, who never met a look he didn't love, missed a long three and Jalen Reynolds (7/5/0) stripped Stainbrook before committing a loose ball foul on Troy Caupain. Caupain is a 83% free throw shooter and buried them both.
Xavier got James Farr (7/3/0) and Bluiett back on the floor in a situation in which they could conceivably hold for a final shot to win the game. With 19 seconds to go, they brought the ball back into the offensive end. Whatever they had in mind, though, went out the window when Gary Clark, scrappy to the end, ran into Bluiett on an ill-advised steal attempt. The freshman jarred both free throws to record his first points with 11 seconds left, Farad Cobb launched another 26 footer for reasons best known to him, Myles Davis grabbed the board, and Xavier was once again the kings of the Queen City.
- What pace will the game be played at? Glacial. The 55 possessions tonight were the fewest in any game Xavier has played this year. The Musketeers managed 1.07 points per possession and the Bearcats 1.04. The Musketeers would have loved the pace to be faster, but they were just effective enough when playing slowly to win the game.
- Who wins the battle inside? UC, without question. The Bearcats poured in 42 points in the paint to Xavier's 16 and won the second chance points matchup 16-5. That said, it was nearly a dead heat on the glass and Xavier actually did better inside than most of UC's opponents have. The Musketeers also went 10-17 from deep, and that covers a multitude of other issues.
- Where is Xavier's mental toughness? It would have been very easy to crumble eight minutes into the stretch without a field goal, or capitulate after the Bearcats finally took the lead. Instead, Xavier dug in on defense and then answered the biggest shot of the game with one of their own. Myles Davis would not be denied for the final rebound and set the toughness tone all game, but the whole team showed some fortitude last night.
Tweet of the Game:
@BannersParkway Doesn't really matter if he's ready or not, he's getting 40 tonight.— Brian Leibforth (@bleibforth) February 19, 2015
Brian called it early, and he was right.