I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team flip a switch like Xavier did tonight. The Twittersphere was aflame early in the first half as the Musketeers did their best impression of a bunch of young men already wondering what they would find under the Christmas tree come the morning of the 25th. (After church, of course). At one point in time Eastern Washington led 22-11. That’s EWU, 253rd in the KenPom rankings, 187th in the Massey Composite, absolutely taking it to a team that came into the season harboring Final Four aspirations.
Coming back from a break on FS1 the cameras in the huddle caught Chris Mack making a defensive adjustment. Correctly noting that his guys were getting beaten on islands based on a pre-game adjustment he’d made, Mack told the team to tighten up off the ball and make sure “we defend for multiple dribbles. That’s everyone...make sure he sees two or three guys when he goes.” From that moment on, it was as close to being literally a different game as the English language will allow. Xavier just totally shifted gears and blew away their Big Sky opponent.
Actually, blew away is an understatement. The Musketeers went on a 35-8 tear. No metaphor that comes immediately to mind seems fitting. The half closed with a 22-2 run. Kaiser Gates (12/3/0) buried three threes in the run, including one with time ticking away to end the half. Edmond Sumner (14/4/9, 0 turnovers) was the one who found Gates for the last three with an overhead pass. Sumner was bloodless all night, shooting 5-7 and running the team efficiently with complete control. Ed flashed the speed and explosiveness of last year without ever looking like he was forcing it.
Another guy who has been getting his without forcing it recently is Rashid Gaston (4/3/0). ‘Shid wasn’t a major force this game, neither was Sean O’Mara (4/5/0), but Xavier’s huge size advantage forced the Eagles inside and gave Musketeers shooters some room. Finally, that mattered. Xavier went 11-25 from deep and used a barrage of threes at the end of the first half (in a stretch where they went 5-5 from the floor) and the start of the second to bury the game. The lead hit 21 when Ed found Trevon Bluiett (16/4/0) with 15:49 to play. From that point, it was essentially just a coast in to the finish.
In large part that came because Eastern Washington’s best player never got going. Xavier came into the game clearly determined to shut down Bogdan Bliznyuk, and it did just that. Bliznyuk had gone for 22 against Texas and 25 against Northwestern, but he only got eight tonight. JP Macura (12/6/2 8-8 FT) was there every time Bliznyuk turned a corner or came down with a rebound, ready to slap and harass. Kaiser Gates also received some praise from Coach Mack after the game for how well he moved his feet to cut off lanes. EWU’s point forward ended the game with just seven field goal attempts and two assists to go with five turnovers.
And so Xavier staggered out of the gate tonight but ended up with a win somewhere between convincing and an utter rout. After looking pedestrian against Wake Forest, they did exactly what they were supposed to and crushed Eastern Washington’s Eagles before the Big East kicks off. Teams like this come into town this time of year to build confidence and said the kids home for Christmas happy. Tonight, the cupcake served its purpose.