Xavier has had some very big missed opportunities this season. At Providence, they came up short in overtime after rallying to usurp a double digit lead for the Friars. They fell to Creighton and St. John's at home, both in contests that they had various chances at late, and Seton Hall on the road thanks to a miserable shooting performance. On Monday, a sloppy close to both halves and a buzzer beater falling short meant defeat at St. John's and a return to life on the bubble. Today was another chance, and it was met perhaps the poorest stretch of basketball Xavier has served up this season.
The game opened well for Xavier, with Trevon Bluiett racking up 7 and Remy Abell 5 as X raced out to a 19-13 lead. Villanova was failing to make chances count from outside, satrting just 1-4 from three and Xavier had all the answers on offense, with Macura, Abell, and Bluiett all hitting from outside in the first 8 minutes of the game. Xavier had energy on both ends, and the Wildcats looked like they were searching for answers as to how to solve this Xavier team. It was looking like X fans were going to get to spend the final week before Selection Sunday bickering about seeding rather than whether they were in or not.
A 12-2 run was the first sobering reminder that this would not be like last Saturday's romp over Butler, Xavier was up against a top-5 opponent who had only 2 losses on the season. When Phil Booth's free throw capped off his three point play, Xavier needed to answer the bell early, or risk losing their way before half time. Dylan Ennis made things no easier with his 4 three pointers in the first half, but X charged back into it, using an 8-0 run in the last 2:25 to enter the half leading by 7. James Farr and JP Macura buried threes and Jalen Reynolds threw down a monster slam to send Xavier to the locker room looking like a team bent on winning this one and punching their ticket for the big dance.
Whatever your thoughts were at halftime, it was obvious that a 7 point lead against Villanova was by no means a sign of a game that was already decided. Xavier had a similar cushion in the Crosstown Shootout, only to see it disappear in the second half, so Musketeer fans were strapped in for 20 nervy minutes that could very well define the season. Soon though, rather than nerve racking excitement, things began to take on a familiar air of predictability.
The high water mark for X would come in the first minute of the second half, when Remy Abell's layup pushed the lead out to 9. For the next 10 minutes, Villanova would push Xavier, and the Musketeers would muster at least a semblance of a response. The lead fell to 5, but X would push it back to 7; Villanova would put on another spurt to push it to 3, but another Xavier basket would push it back out to 5. Continually, the Wildcats were slowly chipping away at the lead as Xavier foundered in a miasma of incomplete stops leading to second chance points, turnovers leading to empty possessions, and open misses leading to greater frustration for X's shooters. Just before 10 minutes, Darrun Hilliard gave Villanova their first lead of the half, which was immediately snatched back by Jalen Reynolds. However, Xavier's response to Villanova's slow, methodical march back into the game was crucial,
The lone monster that was yet to raise its head and bite Xavier in the second half was their old nemesis, failure to defend the arc. It has been the achilles heel for X all season (and last season), but Villanova had just one make from beyond the arc in the first 10 minutes of the half. At 9:13 Kris Jenkins drilled a three to put Nova back in the lead. Trevon Bluiett answered with his first bucket of the second half, but Jenkins came right back with another three of his own. This was the beginning of a 5-6 stretch from three for Nova that would push the lead out to 11 and take all the fight out of the Musketeers. Xavier simply never summoned a response for Villanova's barrage, and the Wildcats wouldn't even attempt another 2 until Dylan Ennis's fastbreak layup with 1:34 left made the lead 13. With the biggest win of the season out there in the balance, Xavier's struggles defending the arc fueled a 22-7 Nova run condemned the Musketeers to another missed chance in a season that is quickly running out of them.