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So close, and yet so far

Last night Auburn destroyed national champion contender UNC. Xavier didn’t suffer the same fate.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Auburn Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Way back on November 19th of 2018, before the six game slide, before the improbable rally back to relevance, before Naji didn’t charge, and before Auburn obliterated UNC, Xavier very nearly beat an Elite Eight team on a neutral floor. In that game was something of a microcosm of Xavier’s season: early adversity, a furious rally, and not enough left in the tank at the end.

Last night Auburn dismantled UNC in what was supposed to be a game the Tar Heels rolled through on their way to a blue blood matchup with Kentucky. The Tigers poured in a three point barrage that Roy Williams never came close to solving. On that day back in November, Auburn made 11 threes, but need 35 attempts to do so. After pulling out to an 11 point lead, the Tigers could only watch as, slowly but surely, Xavier fought their way back into the game.

It wasn’t a game anyone will rewatch for its beauty, neither team shot terribly well, Xavier turned the ball over 21 times (28.2% of their possessions), and Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall combined to miss 22 shots. In another omen for the season, they also combined for 84 minutes played. It was, by all accounts, ugly basketball. Despite being down 11 in the second half, though, Xavier fought back. They did it with sporadically effective defense and, in what would become the calling card of this team, simply refusing to die.

Ultimately, the Musketeers demonstrated you can’t shoot 41% inside the arc and win a game. Despite 17 from Ryan Welage and 16 from Paul Scruggs, they couldn’t quite turn their closing run into a win. When the story of this season is told, though, it’s worth noting how close they were to playing badly and beating Auburn. A neutral win over the Tigers would have been an easy quadrant one win and would have eliminated a matchup against SDSU the next day. Instead, the Musketeers would have played Duke. That simple adjustment may well have been enough to earn X a trip to the NCAA tournament.