With 14 minutes to play, Xavier led Marquette by a score of 53-48. Colby Jones had just scored a little jumper and then assisted Jack Nunge on a wide-open three that the big man duly knocked down. This was Xavier’s high water mark.
It hadn’t all been smooth sailing to get there. After Travis Steele spoke pre-game about Xavier’s slow starts and what the staff was going to do to combat them, Xavier got off to another slow start. Featuring the same starting lineup - Scruggs, Johnson, Jones, Hunter, Freemantle - and the same substitution patterns - there’s Jack Nunge! there’s Adam Kunkel and Dwon Odom! - Xavier got largely the same results.
It took the team more than two and a half minutes to score. With almost 14 minutes off the clock, Xavier had scored just 16 points and trailed by 8. The Muskies were down 9 with 2 minutes left in the half before Adam Kunkel and Dwon Odom sparked a 7-2 run to bring the game within touching distance. A renewed emphasis on getting to the rim out of the half saw Xavier surge to parity, and then into the lead.
The home stretch was a soup sandwich for the Musketeers. In the final 14 minutes of the game, X missed 9 layups, turned the ball over 3 times, and shot 4-8 from the line. Xavier made just 3 field goals and ended the game allowing a 27-11 from the time at which they led by 5 to the final horn. It was a slow motion dissolution, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on 94 feet of hardwood.
As has been the pattern for Xavier this year, they were ascendant for portions of the game but couldn’t put 40 minutes together. For ten and a half minutes spanning halftime, Xavier shot 12-15/3-5/6-7 and went on a 33-19 run. The offense wasn’t doing anything especially special, just not turning the ball over and making their layups. It’s absurd to expect the team to shot 80% for an entire game, but the run they went on was more a product of executing fairly routine buckets than making difficult shots.
That, more than anything, is where Xavier let themselves down today. They shot 12-24 at the rim per Bart Torvik; making 50% of your layups is not a tenable basketball strategy. This is the third time - joining home games against Creighton and Nova - in seven conference games that X has shot 50% or worse on layups and dunks. You don’t need me to tell you that a team seriously hamstrings itself if it can’t finish at the rim. Game planning exists to get the kind of shots the Muskies missed today.
Despite the generally grim tone of this post, today wasn’t crippling for the Musketeers; there’s a reason this would have been a Q1 win. Marquette is the hottest team in the league and fresh off of a road win over Nova. Xavier had a chance in two road games this week to separate themselves from the pack in the Big East and mark themselves out as a team in the running for a protected seed. Instead, they slip back into the morass of teams battling for second-best in the league behind a Villanova program that is once again running the Big East.
Xavier gave themselves every opportunity to win this game and simply couldn’t do simple things well enough to get it across the line. On Wednesday, they’ll host Providence with another opportunity to lay the demons that have stalked their season to rest.