Against Mike Anderson’s St. John’s there is one thing you cannot afford to do: commit live ball turnovers. Current top 25 team West Virginia found that out the hard way back in December, whey they went into Madison Square Garden and turned the ball over 22 times on their way to a costly loss. Last week, Providence one upped the Mountaineers, tossing it to the aptly named Red Storm 23 times and torpedoing their own NCAA Tournament hopes. Tonight, Xavier did barely better with 22 but got enough scoring from the starters and Kyky Tandy, including the last 4 of the game from Zach Freemantle, to cling on to win a vital game in Madison Square Garden.
Xavier rode Paul Scruggs’ (16/4/3) early 8 out to a 12-3 lead, which would evaporate as the Johnnies began to do what they do best: turn steals into run out baskets. On a night when St. John’s got 15 live ball turnovers, one off their season high, the ability to get the create takeaways and then beat Xavier down the floor was what kept the Red Storm in this game. Nick Rutherford (16/5/7) was night unto unstoppable for much of the first half as Xavier counter-punched through the once again transcendent Tyrique Jones (15/15/2) and got enough from Freemantle (11/7/3), Carter (10/7/1), and Tandy (10/3/3) to maintain a 2 point at the half in a game where Naji Marshall once again save his best for winning time.
Early in the second half, the teams traded blows as Xavier continued to be hampered by their inability to take care of the ball on the offensive end. Nearly midway through the half, the Johnnies made their move, ripping off a 10-0 run to lead 68-61 with 7:54 left. Xavier, suffice it to say, was on the ropes in a game that they may not have needed to win to make the NCAA Tournament, but certainly could use to win. Back to back threes by Paul Scruggs bookended a Marcellus Earlington (17/8/2) layup and Naji Marshall (15/11/5) got Xavier back within 1 with 3:44 left. 4 straight from St. John’s dropped Xavier’s win probability all the way to 17% with 2 minutes left, but the rest of the game belonged to Naji Marshall and a pair of freshmen who are quickly becoming vital cogs of this Xavier team.
With Xavier needing an answer, it was Kyky Tandy who slashed to the hoop to draw a foul as he finished to cut the lead back to 3. Next, Naji Marshall hit a tough jumper that only the referees seemed to think he had gotten off without getting fouled and Mike Anderson took a timeout with 1:05 left and Xavier knowing a stop could spell a chance at victory. Xavier got that stop with Jones claiming the ball out of a scramble, but the turnover bug reared its head one final time and Paul Scruggs fouled out sending Rasheem Dunn to the line. Dunn could not convert, Marshall claimed the rebound, took the ball down the court, drove into traffic, and found the lurking Freemantle along the baseline to give Xavier the final lead they would need. Some hero ball from LJ Figueroa gave Freemantle the chance to claim a vital rebound and score the game’s final two points from the line before Tandy blocked Rutherford’s desperation heave and Xavier nation exhaled in relief.