For a Xavier team that has passed every test they have faced this season, save for a combination of the flu and a red-hot Iowa State, today marked another impressive notch as they erased a lead that swelled to as many as 9 in the first half to put away Shaka Smart’s charges, who came into this one with hopes of getting a major statement win on the road to jumpstart their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Xavier’s struggles were somewhat familiar in a first half that saw them struggle as much on offense as they had at any point since the ISU loss. Faced with a defense intent on pressuring the ball, contesting shot at the rim hard, and, for lack of a better description, just fouling as much as possible and hoping the refs did not call it, Xavier fell in love with three pointers off the dribble and missing foul shots. Surprisingly, ball security was not nearly the issue some may have anticipated it would be, with Xavier turning the ball over just 6 times in the first 20 minutes. In the first 13 minutes, however, Xavier would take 10 three pointers, only 3 of which went in, and the Musketeers inability to generate offense had Marquette looking comfortable defending a team that had made opponents anything but over the past 3 weeks.
When the three is not falling and the opponent has a rim protector like Kur Kuath making life difficult for big men, a guard who can get downhill and create shots for himself and others is the key to getting an offense going. Luckily, on this almost comically well stocked Xavier roster, they have just the man for the job in Dwon Odom. Possessed of the confidence to drive the lane against players a foot taller than him and the touch to make those drives pay, Odom took the game over for the last 6 minutes of the first half. He had 8 points and a steal in a 10-2 run that barely took 2 minutes and signaled the way forward for Xavier. For all of their willingness to hassle and slap at ball handlers, Marquette did not possess a guard with the ability to actually stay in front of Odom and paid dearly as the sophomore went for a career high 19 points on just 9 field goal attempts in only 21 minutes. No one the Golden Eagles threw at #11 was sufficient to the task and Xavier, recognizing this, ruthlessly exploited that fact to take back control of the game.
That is not to say the second half was a cakewalk by any means. After going on a 12-4 run before the first media timeout to extend the lead to 10, Xavier soon found their offense running in sand again. This led to the second half being a choppy affair, in which neither team really established momentum for the bulk of the time. Xavier’s lead lingered between 4 and 8 for 10 minutes after the first media timeout before Jack Nunge (13/12/0) made it 69-60 with 6:10 to play, which seemed to have put the momentum firmly behind Xavier in their bid to see the game out. Marquette finally put together a string of good possessions, thanks to Tyler Kolek finally being able to play an extended stretch without fouling, and went on a 9-1 run to put the result very much in doubt.
With free throw shooting continuing to be a weakness and their opponents having them on the ropes, Xavier’s fifth year guard stepped into winning time and made it his own. No, not the one who usually does that, the other one. Nate Johnson already had 14 points on 3/6 from deep, but found a way to make a few more plays down the stretch to seal the win for X. First, he found Colby Jones (11/8/0) for a little runner in the lane to push the lead back out to 3. He cleared the next defensive rebound for X and, on the ensuing possession, found Jack Nunge on a well executed slip to the basket for a dunk that got the Cintas Center rocking and the momentum back with Xavier. After Dwon Odom and Greg Elliot split two point trips, Odom found Johnson in the corner through a collapsing defense and the Gardner Webb transfer found nothing but net on his 4th three of the game to push his line to 17/5/4 and put the final nails in Marquette’s coffin.
Typically, if a team can hold a pair of pre season All Conference players to 13 points on 5-15 from the floor, one would imagine that team has a good chance of winning. That theory would not account for just how deep this Xavier team is, though. On a night when Scruggs’ (5/1/5) shot was not falling, Jones was not at his usual level of efficiency, Kunkel (3/1/0) never really found his way into the game, and Freemantle (8/9/3) alternated between brilliant and maddening, Xavier still got the job done because they had other players who could step into the void and take the game over. That is the mark of a special team and, judging off tonight’s evidence, this team has a chance to be just that.