This game was supposed to be the game of the year in the Big East conference. A de-facto regular season title game, both teams came into this game knowing that the conference title and a win that would cement a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament were on the line. As has happened so often in the past 5 seasons, Xavier simply had no reply for Villanova’s offensive prowess and slumped to their first defeat since losing at Villanova, a span which saw the Musketeers win 9 straight and move to 4th in the nation. Despite the almost foregone conclusion of a final result, this game did live up to the billing for much of the second half, but a litany of defensive miscues ended up costing Xavier their shot at controlling their own destiny in the Big East title race.
Things were loud and exciting as the game tipped, with Xavier riding a pair of early JP Macura (Muh-COO-ruh to the unjustifiably employed Len Elmore) threes and Xavier looked like they were going to go punch for punch with the Wildcats early. After leading 8-5 Xavier was simply swarmed by a barrage of Nova threes, with the visitors connecting 11 times from deep in the first half and leading by as many as 19 as they pulled away by simply making everything they shot from deep, as is their wont against Xavier. Mikal Bridges poured in 16 in the first 20 minutes as Xavier’s focus on keeping Jalen Brunson quiet meant Bridges often had one of Xavier’s lesser defenders on him. On the offensive side, Xavier struggled outside of Macura in the opening half, notably with Kaiser Gates and Naji Marshall combining for just 2 points on 1-7 shooting, meaning Nova could focus all of their efforts on keeping Xavier’s senior duo quiet. Stops and momentum were going to be the order of the day were X to make a game of this one, staring down a 14 point halftime deficit.
The opening possession of the second half was a missed three by Bridges, which would set a trend for Villanova as they came out of the half stone cold from deep. A Trevon Bluiett 4 point play helped Xavier get started on nibbling away early and by the first media timeout it was back withing single digits. 5 straight from Bluiett would help X cut the lead to 3 with just under 13 minutes left and the Musketeers had the momentum firmly at their back as they opened the half on a 22-11 spurt to get themselves back into it. The next time down the court, following a Tyrique Jones miss, Paul Scruggs and Omari Spellman got involved in an altercation following a scrap for the rebound. The facts of the case are this:
- Scruggs clearly went over Spellman’s back in an attempt to get the ball, a call that another woeful Big East refereeing crew missed initially.
- Spellman secured the ball, at which point Scruggs (no longer actively fouling him) cleanly assumed simultaneous possession of the ball in an attempt to wrench it away. The referees are still spectators at this point.
- All three referees begin frantically blowing their whistles and charge in on the play as the ball pops loose and rolls out of bounds. The referee in front of the play (along the baseline) signals for a jump ball.
- Spellman, taking exception at an attempted decapitation, faces up to Scruggs and bumps him, Scruggs takes a step back from the bump and verbally responds to Spellman as players from both sides remove the aggressive parties.
- There is a delay of 3-5 minutes as the referees sort out the incident, landing on assessing a technical to both Spellman and Scruggs and a common foul to Scruggs (which I think is stupid, but I am not trying to editorialize).
All that being said, if Jones makes the shot, one he has been very good at making this season, X still has the momentum and is down 1 with 12 minutes left. Instead, Villanova went on a 9-2 run to stretch the lead back to double digits and the game was not within a possession again. The play marked a turning point in the second half which, agree with the call or not, Xavier did not respond to well. The defense which had held Nova to 11 points in over 7 minutes let in 33 over the last 12. The exceptional ball movement and offensive cohesion gave way to too much dribbling and too many long jumpers. Most of all, it no longer looked like Xavier thought they could win after going back down 10. In a season where Xavier has survived so many bumps in the road and won, it was perhaps due for them to finally hit one that derailed them for good. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but it was a growing day for Xavier and, for once, the matchup of the Big East’s two premier programs served up an excellent game of basketball.