Cast your mind back to March of 2014. What do you remember of Xavier basketball? If you’re a plugged in fan you’ll remember Semaj Christon having a great year and leaving early, Dee Davis emerging as a junior, and Xavier rebounding from a rare season without postseason play. What you may not remember is a game on March 1st that Xavier absolutely had to win, and the ever enigmatic player that helped them win it.
Justin Martin came to Xavier as a top 100 recruit who scouting reports said could shoot it and score off the dribble. When Martin stepped on the court as a freshman he was already 21 years old. In his time at Xavier he at times seemed aloof, loved to look nonchalant, and at times turned in otherworldly performances. Martin eventually left X to finish his career at SMU, where he remained the hard to figure player he had been at Xavier before departing early. When Martin left Xavier he did so as a player who never quite seemed to weave himself into the tapestry. He also left with one of the great performances in team history.
In early March of 2014 Xavier desperately needed a win. 9-6 in the Big East they had won two big games early in the season but hadn’t added a great deal to the resume since. Creighton was coming to the Cintas as the 17th best team in the nation and exactly what the Musketeers needed to lock up their place and move off the bubble. Unfortunately, they also come with Doug McDermott.
McDermott was in the middle of a season where he had the second highest shots percentage in the nation, was 13th in usage rate, and still posted an offensive efficiency of 124. McDermott averaged 26.7/7/1.6 for the year, shot 52.6% from the field and 45% behind the arc. At 6-8, 225 he was a matchup nightmare on a team full of shooters. Creighton came in riding a four game winning streak and trying to mark their spot as the best of the Big East newcomers. The season previous Xavier had watched the tournament, the Bluejays had faced UC and Duke.
Come this game and the Jays took everything that Xavier could throw at them and just kept coming back. For the longest time, Xavier could not get stops and rode their own red hot offense to a halftime lead. Doug McDermott went on a five point run early in the second half, and Justin Martin answered with five of his own. Then, Coach Mack moved his swingman over to guard McDermott. Martin surrendered two inches and 20 pounds but, for a decisive 10:09 stretch in the second half, he surrendered no points to McDermott.
That incredible defense wasn’t even the story of Martin’s game, though. He did everything the team needed. When Dee Davis hit a dagger three to make the lead six late in the game, it was Martin that found him, when Creighton sent the Musketeers to the line late, it was Martin that sank the vital free throws. When Xavier needed to close out possessions against the nation’s second best offense and best shooting team, it was Martin that grabbed 15 defensive rebounds.
Justin Martin’s 19/16/1 may not be widely remembered in large part because, despite beating Creighton to lock up a spot, Xavier couldn’t get out of the play-in games in Dayton that year. The Musketeers first season in the Big East was soon overshadowed by a Sweet 16 run the very next. The game that Xavier absolutely had to win was relegated, as so many “big” games are, by the very circumstances that serve to make them so large. No one knows that at the time though, and when a brand new Big East team needed a stellar performance to steady the ship and avoid two straight NCAA tournaments on the couch, it was Justin Martin who stepped up. As the decade comes to an end, Martin’s 19/16/1 when his team needed him may just be the most overlooked clutch performance of these ten years.