We keyed on, among other things, the idea of putting together a complete wire-to-wire performance against Florida as the key to this game for Xavier. The Muskies had dominated in spurts so far this season, but the lapses forgiven by Missouri and UConn would likely be punished by the Gators, who came out of the preseason at #6 in the polls.
That ended up a portentous sentiment, as Xavier showed its mettle early and late to give Florida all it could handle. It was the disastrous middle portion of the game that hamstrung the Muskies.
After being up 21-19 with 7 minutes left in the first half behind a lot of magic from Paul Scruggs (24/3/1), Xavier stumbled through the next 11 minutes of play. With Scruggs and Naji Marshall (6/3/4) hampered by foul trouble, Xavier faltered on both ends of the floor and surrendered a 33-14 during which Florida could barely miss and Xavier couldn't even get shots off thanks to the Gators' hounding defense. In a game in which every possession mattered, X turned the ball over 18 times.
With the breaks soundly beating the boys, though, X kept their chins up. Scruggs scored and-one and Zach Freemantle (4/1/0) made a layup. The teams swapped empty possessions as Xavier's defense started locking down, and then the Muskies sprung to life. From down 17 with 16 minutes to play, Xavier had Quentin Goodin (11/5/2) making a layup to cut it to 6 with 10:25 on the clock.
But Florida had other ideas. An immensely talented squad, they righted the ship and had Ques Glover twice hit jumpers to push the lead back to 13, the second with just over 6 minutes to play. The Gators - who could give up 2 points off their lead every minute left on the clock and still win - had to feel like they had weathered the storm and were home and dry. But Xavier kept coming.
A bucket from Scruggs and two FTs each from Tyrique Jones (13/7/2) and Jason Carter (5/5/4) brought the game to 8, then much-maligned senior PG Quentin Goodin cashed out on two huge catch-and-shoot threes to cut the deficit to just 3 with a minute left. Xavier got their stop and set up the play. Facing Florida's 1-3-1, Naji, Tyrique, and Paul pulled out a seemingly improvised play where a back screen ended up freeing Scruggs from behind the arc. His shot took an agonizing trip all over the rim but eventually rolled off, and Florida's Kerry Blackshear iced it with a rebound and two free throws.
For 29 minutes of that game, Xavier more than punched with a team that has Final Four potential and is figuring it out. X is good, but they won't be great until they can figure out what causes them to disengage for extended lulls, allowing teams to either battle back, hang around, or - in tonight's case - run away.
Despite that frustration, this was a great weekend for the Muskies. Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs each looked like stars in turns. The team battled through adversity, questionable officiating, and self-inflicted wounds to have the game-tying shot sitting on the rim in the final. Zach Freemantle looked like a guy on the verge of breaking out. Tyrique Jones dominated everyone who came near him, even through cramps and on a bad ankle.
In March, we'll be looking back at this tournament as the first glimpse of Xavier's potential. Without Kyky Tandy and Daniel Ramsey, with a hobbled Tyrique Jones, Xavier was right there against Florida. When this team gets healthy and starts to click in, watch out. Xavier isn't coming back from Charleston with the nets hung around a trophy, but I'm more convinced than ever that they're the most slept-on team in the conference and probably the country.