There are so many conflicting emotions that happen when a dream comes crashing down. When Remy Abell turned with his arms in the air, we shared the same look of disbelief and shock. When Stanley Burrell walked off against an overwhelming UCLA team, he wasn’t the only one whose eyes welled up. Tonight, Xavier’s improbable run to an NCAA tournament bid ended mostly in anger.
For those of you who may have chosen not to remember, Xavier once again met Villanova in the Big East semifinals. As X has come up through the Big East, it is Nova who has held them down. Led by the best coach in the conference, featuring the best players in the conference, Villanova always seems to have Xavier’s number. For long stretches tonight, though, that wasn’t the case.
This team won’t go down as one of Xavier’s most talented, but tonight they showed heart in spades. They didn’t play particularly well offensively, but that’s for another day. What they did was fight ferociously on defense. Nova threw big punches early, but Xavier, led by a snarling, aggressive performance from Paul Scruggs, came back. The Musketeers took the lead, then dug in and held on, not in pretty way, but seemingly with nothing more than sheer will.
And then, anger. Xavier wasn’t playing a game for the ages. This wasn’t one going to go in the book next to David West dominating UC, Tu Holloway spinning against Dayton, or the brilliant game that BJ Raymond won, but the Musketeers had clung on until, devastatingly, Nova scored with just nine seconds to play. Tie game. Less than ten seconds to stake an at-large claim.
Xavier eschewed the timeout and tried to get something in flow. As well coached teams do, they spaced the floor and with 3.6 seconds left, Naji Marshall caught the ball at the top of the key with the left side opening in front of him. As Marshall drove, the defense collapsed toward him. Paul Scruggs, running to the end, back cut but was covered, Tyrique Jones screened at the top of the key, Kyle Castlin flared left, and Quentin Goodin trailed on the right. It was Naji’s to go get.
And he tried. Slowed and at times limping off an ankle he surely won’t use as an excuse, Marshall gave Xavier 40 minutes. Now, he had a chance to give them the lead and win. He drove, saw Conor Gillespie (who somehow doesn’t play for an early 2000s Duke team) and Saddiq Bey closing, and elevated. Gillespie never stopped closing. As Naji took flight to try the running one hander he’s fond of, Gillespie executed something between a slide tackle and a chop block and took Marshall’s feet and legs right out from underneath him. As the two bodies hit the floor, the whistle blew.
This is the very simplest of calls in basketball. Putting it rather simply, you can’t just run into a guy who is jumping. Somewhat more precisely, a defender must allow a jumping offensive player room to land. Gillespie obviously and unquestionably failed to do that, chopping Marshall to the ground right in front of referee Brian O’Connell. The problem, and the reason that so many people are experiencing anger along with the nausea, is that Brian O’Connell is bad at his job. That’s not really a debatable point, because with one of the easiest calls in the game happening right in front of him, our newest hero to the inept blew his whistle and got it 100% wrong. Bob Huggins once called Steve Logan an inspiration to chunky people everywhere. Brian O’Connell now stands as a leader for the grossly incompetent.
Instead of a 71% free throw shooter who is 14 of his last 19 going to the line for the win for Xavier, the Musketeers had to try to weather five more minutes of Villanova onslaught. Finally, the team that fought all the way back from the horror of February simply had nothing left. For 39 minutes and 56 seconds Xavier did what they had to do to win the game. With 3.5 seconds to play all that had to happen for the Musketeers to lead and Villanova to need a desperation heave was that the rules of basketball be enforced. They weren’t, though, and now there will be no Selection Sunday gathering for Xavier. Thanks to four fateful seconds, the Musketeers won’t be dancing.
Brian O’Connell will be working games again Saturday. His work tonight will not be reviewed. Come next Thursday, he’ll be on the court for the first round. Zach Hankins, Ryan Welage, Kyle Castlin and all the Musketeers that aren’t graduating won’t be.