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Anatomy of a zipping up

Xavier was all but dead and buried at the final media timeout. By the time the body bags were closed, it wasn’t the Muskies who were in them.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Arizona vs Xavier
Mal’s chase down block was a big moment for the Muskies.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Depending on who you ask, Xavier’s win probability bottomed out at or slightly after the final media timeout. NumberFire puts the Musketeers down to their last 2.92% when Parker Jackson-Cartwright jarred the second of the two free throws he earned right before the break. KenPom doesn’t label each play, but he had Xavier down to right around 3% when Kadeem Allen made a layup with 2:52 to play.

When Allen’s layup went through the strings, Xavier was down to its last breath in a shootout that had seen Arizona not be able to pull away despite averaging 1.29 points per possession in their 55 trips down the floor to that point. To get back on top before time ran out, Xavier would need to outscore Arizona by at least 8 in the remaining 2:52. With the tenor of the game to that point, scoring 8 was always going to be the easier part. Then the defense went to work.

First possession: 2:20 Allonzo Trier missed Three Point Jumper. J.P. Macura Defensive Rebound. (Xavier down 67 - 71)

Xavier was in a 2-3/1-1-3 here with JP and Q chasing all around the perimeter. That obviously left some gaps when the ball rotated quickly, and with 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Trier tried a long three that would have been a dagger. Instead it rimmed out, and JP dropped in from the wing to rake it out and go.

Second possession: 1:58 Allonzo Trier missed Jumper. Xavier Deadball Team Rebound. (Xavier down 69 - 71)

Back into the zone again. One of the few times I agreed with Chris Webber’s analysis of the game was right here. Ten seconds into the possession, Trier dribbled into a 17-footer from the right elbow area for reasons best known only to himself. It was a hard brick, and a the ball caught a couple of hands before going out of bounds to Xavier.

Third possession: 1:26 Allonzo Trier Turnover. (Game tied 71 - 71)

Things really started to tighten up here for Arizona. The freedom with which they had been playing for most of the game was all but gone as it became clear momentum was on Xavier’s side. After a lot of dribbling around, Trier got himself caught in a blind alley on the left side of the lane. Trier gave up the ball - which was smart - but he did so to Tre, which was of debatable strategic value to Arizona.

Fourth possession: 0:50 Dusan Ristic missed Jumper. Xavier Defensive Rebound. (Game tied 71 - 71)

Maybe my favorite possession of the game. With the season in the balance, Xavier was back in a man look and Arizona tried to iso Ristic on the block against Tyrique Jones. Ristic banged hard twice against Jones to drive him under the bucket; he gained exactly no ground. Stuck ten feet out along the right baseline, he turned and tried a half hook shot from a really narrow angle. It never really had a chance. Twenty hands battled for the rebound, but a monitor review showed that the last one it touched belonged to a Wildcat.

A break here to stop talking about defense for a minute. While the refs looked at the monitor, Coach Dale scanned the Hickory High huddle and decided to run Jimmy Chitwood off of a screen as a decoy Coach Mack called Corner Rip High-Low Counter. This wasn’t a one-off play that Mack drew up in the huddle. It wasn’t - as Chris Webber suggested on the telecast - just a case of Sean O’Mara happening to seal his man after Xavier called Trevon Bluiett’s number. It was an action Xavier has run over and over in the Mack Era, one that any coach could find in some back issue of the newsletter that the Xavier basketball program produces. It was also the perfect call to put Xavier on top.

Back to the zipping up.

Fifth possession: 0:27 Kadeem Allen missed Jumper. Sean O'Mara Defensive Rebound. (Xavier up 73 - 71)

Two and a half minutes ago, Arizona had this thing done and dusted. Now they needed a clutch shot to tie the game up and give themselves a chance. They didn’t get it. Allen got free in the paint for a shot that wasn’t horrible, but he wasn’t able to convert and Xavier continued its second half trend by not allowing the Wildcats a second look at the rim.

Sixth possession: 0:09 Allonzo Trier missed Three Point Jumper. Malcolm Bernard Defensive Rebound. (Xavier up 73 - 71)

One possession for the whole thing. With Xavier in a 2-3, Parker Jackson-Cartwright set a screen on Quentin Goodin to try to free Trier at the top of the key. Goodin - the strongest guard on the Xavier roster - fought over the screen in time to close out hard on Trier. Arizona’s leading scorer jabbed stepped, used a dribble to create space, and lifted from deep. Q challenged high and hard, but - like Remy Abell a year ago - pulled his hands back to avoid contact. This time it rimmed out, Mal grabbed the board, and Xavier celebrated.

I can’t find exactly where, but earlier this year I questioned if the Zip ‘Em Up era was over at Xavier. Myles Davis represented a strong link to that time, but he’s gone. Instead of burying games in the second half, X was fading out of them. It was all going to seed there in February.

Then something flipped a switch. I’m sure part of it was Malcom Bernard, part of it was Coach Mack, and part of it was just each guy deciding what he wanted to be. Whatever it was, it all came together last night. In the six biggest defensive possessions of the year, Xavier held a top 20 offense to 0-5/0-2/0-0 shooting, forced a turnover, and gave up zero offensive rebounds. It was man, it was zone, it was a total team effort. It was everything we needed it to be.

White sheets. Yellow tape. Closed case.