Anyone marooned at work, under a rock, or otherwise unable to watch this game tonight will look at the 98-93 final in overtime and assume it was another Big East classic. It was, but how we got there was anything but the norm. Xavier somehow played great basketball, awful basketball, and vintage Xavier basketball all in the same game. With hearts out of mouths and pacemakers reset, here’s how it happened.
Xavier tore off a 25-2 run in the first half and at one point led by 18. No, that is not a vestigial remnant of an article about a game that didn’t go into overtime. With 9:10 left in the first half Xavier was rolling and had a 92.5% win probability. Kerem Kanter (22/2/1) was unstoppable in that stretch, Kaiser Gates (8/3/0) splashed a couple of threes, and Trevon Bluiett (26/5/3) also drilled a couple.
Butler fought back into the game in the way you’d expect a Big East team at home to, but Xavier still led by 10 at the end of the first half. In that first period Xavier shot a scalding 67% from the floor. Kanter had 11, Sean O’Mara (14/5/1) had eight, and everyone who touched the floor for the Musketeers scored. It wasn’t the 18 it had been, but a ten point halftime lead on the road is something anyone would have jumped at the chance for.
Then, the wheels fell off. With ten minutes to play in the game, Xavier was down four, the Butler official Twitter account was talking about how life comes at you fast, and Hinkle was as rocking as it gets. Xavier simply let off far too early. The Musketeers came out of the half, missed three straight shots, made one, and then turned it over twice in a row. On the other end, Kelan Martin was getting rolling (he finished with 34, played every minute, had an offensive efficiency of 137, and turned the ball over only twice), and Sean McDermott had a 20 minute long out of body experience in which he went 4-4 behind the arc. With that, and Martin’s 25 in the half, Butler overtook the Musketeers in just ten minutes and put four points into them, an incredible 22 point swing.
The Xavier Way
Xavier didn’t go away, though, Trevon Bluiett jarred a three and the teams began to just throw hammers at each other. Coach Mack switched Naji Marshall (15/6/1) onto Martin and the freshman began to give Butler’s big gun some real issues. The only problem was that the long jumpers that Martin had to settle for just kept falling. On the other end, Sean O’Mara and Kerem Kanter mauled Tyler Wideman, who spent 18 minutes looking useless than fouled out, and the human turnstile Nate Fowler, who also fouled out.
Finally, with 1:57 to play, Xavier had clawed back out to a seven point lead. The intervening time between Butler seizing the lead and Xavier apparently taking back control were an eight minute long commercial for Big East basketball. It was fast, intense, high scoring, and a ton of fun. Tre’s three to make the lead seven saw him backpedal down the court letting Butler know they could come get it “all day” in a continuation of Xavier’s palpable swagger all game long. The crowning moment of that had come just earlier, when Naji Marshall fought through Paul Jorgensen for an offensive rebound, scored, and deposited Jorgensen significantly more frail body on the ground. Marshall walked that way wearing a look of utter contempt as he glared up at the Butler band.
All of which would have been awesome if Xavier had gone on to close the game out, but they didn’t. Sean McDermott’s deal with the devil lasted long enough for two more threes from him, and Kamar Baldwin then hit one to tie it after Bluiett was a step slow to close out. That left Butler having erased an 18 point lead and then having eliminated a seven point deficit in just 1:10. The Butler fans who had bothered to attend (it wasn’t a sellout) could be forgiven for thinking the fates had aligned with them and this would be their night.
It wasn’t though, because they are Butler and Xavier is Xavier. Trevon Bluiett and Naji Marshall grabbed the extra period by the throat and closed it out. That began with Marshall zipping Martin up to the tune of 0/1/0 on 0-2 from the floor in those five minutes. He played a great game but, when it mattered, he couldn’t shake Xavier’s #13. Likewise Sean McDermott, who inexplicably started OT on the bench, then never got a shot off after his back to back threes to haul Butler back in regulation.
While Marshall went for 6/3/0 in overtime alone, it’s Bluiett who will rightfully take the plaudits. He stuck an absolutely vintage leaner from the right elbow that he nodded his way back down court after and then, with Butler just seconds from a vital stop, he did this:
TRE FROM BACK IN CINCINNATI— Xavier Gameday (@XavierGameday) February 7, 2018
Simply incredible. pic.twitter.com/aA6VZiH99q
And with that, the #5 team in the nation moved on. Down a big, getting only one shot from JP, and after losing an 18 point lead on the road, Coach Mack’s squad still got the job done. This team is special. Any final thoughts for Butler, Tre?