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Tough guys win tough games

Yesterday was a season-opening walkover for Xavier. Twenty-four hours later, they found themselves in a dog fight.

NCAA Basketball: Bradley at Xavier
Dwon Odom, actual tough guy.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of ways tough guys present. Some snarl and mean mug like Tyrique Jones. Some stare stone-faced daggers as they go to work like Tu Holloway. Some tell you about it while they do it to you like JP Macura.

When it comes down to brass tacks, though, all actual tough guys have one thing in common: they do not duck away from the task at hand. Plenty of pretend tough guys talk the talk when they’re under no pressure; actual tough guys want the responsibility when the stakes are the highest.

We already know Zach Freemantle (17/7/0) is an actual tough guy, and early on it looked like he would be the only story in today’s game. Xavier’s first possession ended in a three for the sophomore captain off of pick and pop action. Next time down, he tipped in a missed free throw by Paul Scruggs (17/1/7). Then he racked a jumper off the bounce, then another off of an assist from Dwon Odom (4/4/4). Before three minutes had come off the clock, Freemantle had 9 points and Xavier led 10-2.

If you thought Bradley would roll over like Oakland did, though, the next several minutes were a rude awakening. Xavier’s next sixteen possessions yielded just two points as the Braves mixed in an aggressive 3-2 zone that stymied Xavier’s ball movement and the Muskies couldn’t hit long jumpers like they had against Oakland. What was a 10-2 lead with 17 minutes left in the half was a 12-11 deficit at the under-8 timeout.

In an increasingly scrappy game, Xavier scrapped back. Out of the media break, your friend and mine Zach Freemantle hit another three. Paul Scruggs - one of the first Muskies to realize that jump shots weren’t the way forward today - started to attack the rim. He hit a couple of FTs, set up Kyky Tandy (4/1/1) for an open basket, then hit a jumper of his own off of a Tandy assist. One more Scruggs free throw sent the Muskies into the half leading (brace yourself) 22-20.

The game was every bit as pretty as the score makes it sound.

Out of the half, noted actual tough guy Paul Scruggs did his best to set the tone. With his jumper not falling - he shot 6-17/1-7/4-8 on the day - he was relentless in attacking the Bradley defense. He got his own shot and then assisted the next two buckets to lead Xavier’s charge out of the break. After another pick and pop three by Freemantle, Xavier was up 8 and Bradley needed a timeout.

It worked, and the subsequent 7-0 Bradley run was only broken by a Kyky Tandy jumper after a 4:33 scoring drought by Xavier. After Bradley pushed back with 5 straight to take a 36-33 lead, Paul Scruggs went on a personal 7-0 run punctuated by a big corner three off of a Dwon Odom assist to make it 40-36 Xavier with 10 to play. That was the last score in which the teams were separated by more than a basket.

Bradley took three and a half minutes to score their next five points, but Xavier had zero in that span and Bradley had the lead. Jason Carter (2/11/0) got a scrappy stickback to take the lead. Bradley answered with a bucket off of an offensive rebound their next time down. The teams exchanged empty possessions, then Zach Freemantle dunked Xavier back into the lead heading into the U4.

Bradley scored. Scruggernuts set Nate Johnson (3/8/0) up for a three that he duly knocked down. Bradley tied it with a pair of FTs off of two offensive boards. Xavier got two offensive boards of their own the next time down, leading to a Paul Scruggs basket. X up 2, 2 minutes to play. Jason Carter got called for a weak foul, but justice prevailed in the form of Ja’Shon Henry going 0-2 from the line.

With Xavier up a pair and 36 seconds left, it looked like Xavier had gotten the last stop it would need when Paul Scruggs dug to the post, picked Elijah Childs’s pocket, and tapped it out to Dwon Odom. Odom suffered a bit of a rush of blood to the head though, and attacked a 1 on 2 break instead of pulling the ball out. The resulting out of control layup had little chance of success, and Bradley took advantage of their second life by racking a highly-contested three from the corner.

12.5 seconds left. Bradley 50 - Xavier 49. Call your shot, Muskie fans.

In a postgame interview courtside, Zach Freemantle said that Dwon Odom didn’t need to be told what he had just done. “As soon as... we went into the huddle, he said, ‘that was my fault and I’m gonna make it up to us.’”

Xavier put the ball in to Odom with 12 seconds to go the length of the court and save the game. At the top of the key, he and Zach Freemantle entered pick and pop action. Undoubtedly concerned that Freemantle would drill his fourth three of the game, and perhaps mesmerized by Odom’s pace, two Bradley Braves collided trying to cover the play. Odom attacked, rising high to his right to clear the help defender and kiss a floater off the glass. It hung on the rim for an eternity before falling through.

Bradley had one more chance at it, as a questionable loose ball foul against Paul Scruggs sent Terry Nolan to the line. At the end of his 57th minute in less than 24 hours after 8 12 months out of game action, he left it short. Xavier survived.

In a game this scrappy, everyone has to play his role. Nate Johnson only made one three, but he pulled down 8 boards as Xavier’s big men fought to create space on the glass. Jason Carter and Bryan Griffin (2/9/0) were mostly anonymous offensively, but they combined to pull down 20 rebounds. Kyky Tandy couldn’t get his jumper going (0-4 from deep), but he was solid in the attack and shot 2-3 from inside the arc. The Muskies got a total team effort on this one.

Of course, thanks to the NCAA’s decisions (or lack thereof) on eligibility of transfers and appropriate pandemic precautions, the “total team” consists of just eight dudes right now. Because of that, I’m not taking a whole lot away from this. With a short bench and a short turnaround after a long layoff and a short preseason, it makes sense that the Muskies had heavy legs today. Execution on offense (outside of Big Frosty) was not crisp. So it goes.

What I am taking away from it is that this Xavier team has what the star of a bygone era might call “tough guys on the court.” We knew it about Zach Freemantle already. Paul Scruggs has spent three seasons proving his bona fides. With that albatross of a decision when the game was all but won hanging around his neck, Dwon Odom stood in the gap and took the responsibility for the game’s result onto his broad shoulders.

The finish was a testament to his talent; that he took it on speaks definitively to his toughness.