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Xavier faces must-win game against Creighton and wins: Three Takeaways

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Xavier hassled, attacked, and bullied Creighton at various times to bring home an invaluable Big East win.

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Xavier
It’s like poetry in motion.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier knew that coming into this game and playing on Creighton’s terms was a recipe for disaster, but after a rough past 3 weeks and without Nate Johnson, the Musketeers dug deep, showed a focus and intensity on defense that kept the Bluejays off balance all night, and got some huge performances from the usual suspects and a couple of key role players to not only win but reignite the hope that this team can be a threat come March.

Paul Scruggs has earned a place in Xavier lore

The catalyst for Xavier taking control of the game early was none other than the lone 4 year player on the roster: the rugged and determined talisman of this team, Paul Scruggs. Scruggs was in attack mode early and took the game to whichever of Creighton’s guards was unfortunate enough to draw him. If Coach Steele turns out to be the next in the line of coaching success stories at Xavier, Paul Scruggs will be at leas partially to thank because of the leadership, toughness, and willingness to battle for his teammates he has displayed over the past three seasons. He finished his final game on the Cintas Center floor with 23/7/5 to lead the way in a vital win and was dogged in harrying Denzel Mahoney into a fairly ineffective performance on offense as Creighton tried to get their role players going because...

The defense was Xavier’s strength tonight

As nice as it was to see Xavier taking the game to an opponent in the paint and on the drive tonight, the defensive turnaround was what serves as a harbinger that this team just might be turning the corner. After getting absolutely torched by Providence, Xavier held the 12th best offense in the nation to a point per possession and held them to 47% from inside the arc, a full 10% below their season average. Notable in this were the efforts of Zach Freemantle (17/10/3) and Jason Carter (0/5/1) in keeping Christian Bishop quiet and holding Creighton to 7 offensive rebounds. Perhaps the most impressive was Dwon Odom who, when he wasn’t ruthlessly exposing Mitch Ballock’s complete lack of defensive ability, was sticking to Marcus Zegarowski like glue, keeping Creighton’s chief playmaker from operating in the half court and twice rejecting the Preseason Big East Player of the Year at the rim. While Zegarowski was able to collect 10 assists, he was not able to provide Creighton a consistent scoring option and, with Ballock also finding life difficult, left the Bluejays searching for a formula that they could count on for points.

Xavier needs this bench every time out

With Johnson out for the season, Xavier was looking for help from the reserves who, no matter who you find at fault, have been ineffective more much of February. Tonight, Kunkel, Griffin, Wilcher, and Tandy gave Xavier 19/4/5 in 45 minutes and were all worthy parts of Xavier’s swarming defense. Kunkel was the standout, hitting a pair of key threes, a driving scoop shot, and two free throws down the stretch, but Wilcher also knocked down a rhythm three, Tandy was aggressive and active on defense and snared a pair of defensive rebounds with his hustle, and Griffin helped Xavier win the battle in the paint at both ends. Much has been made of Xavier’s at times cofounding player rotations since coming back from Covid shutdown, but everyone off the bench gave Xavier good minutes tonight and were key in keeping the pressure on Crieghton while key cogs like Scruggs and Freemantle were out.