Xavier’s TBT team is comprised of fan favorites and cult heroes of teams gone by. In this brief series we are going to focus on the moment that encapsulates that players career. This won’t necessarily be the guy’s best game or his biggest scoring output, but it will be the one (we think) that demonstrates what he meant to the program or the one that everyone will remember. Feel free to disagree in the comments and on Twitter.
In February 2014, Xavier was not exactly an ascendant force. After having missed the previous tournament due to not being good enough, they were 15-7, on a three-game losing streak, and in danger of falling off the bubble when they welcomed Providence to Cintas. Under the leadership of possibly good coach Ed Cooley, the Friars were in a similar situation as Xavier, but - having won 6 of 8 coming into the game - were trending in the right direction.
Xavier was led by fifth-year coach Chris Mack and second-year player Semaj Christon. Neither had yet completely proven themselves to the Xavier faithful, as there were questions regarding whether or not Mack could coach without relying on Tu Holloway to bail him out and whether or not Christon was aware he had been born with a left hand as well as his dominant right one. Across the court, veteran head coach Ed Cooley and senior guard Bryce Cotton had captured the hearts and minds of Friar fans across the country and - move pivotally - on Twitter.
The game was nip and tuck the whole way. Xavier pushed out to a couple of reasonable leads - including 54-48 with the ball and 8:21 left - but couldn’t hold Providence at arm’s length. A 7:21 scoring drought from that moment left X clinging to a two-point lead with a minute to play and Providence on the ball.
Come the moment, come the man.
Ed Cooley called Bryce Cotton’s number, as he had all season. Providence’s senior guard spent more time on the floor than any other player in the country, and he led the Friars in usage rate, shots percentage, and offensive rating by comfortable margins. He had come into the game averaging 27 per in his last 4 and had dropped a cool 25/3/7 on Xavier in their first matchup.
Lined up across from him was Semaj. Because he followed on the heels of program legend Tu Hollway and because he played on some lackluster teams and because he left early, I don’t think Semaj quite gets the credit he deserves for the effort he put in to keep the program moving in the right direction as Chris Mack found his feet in the post-Tu/Cheekz era. For two years, he was Xavier’s man for the big occasion.
Two bubble teams. Two star guards. A pivotal possession with more than just the game on the line. Cotton squared up in the left hand channel, drove hard to his right, and ripping a sweeping crossover back across his body to change directions.
Semaj picked his pocket.
Just like that, the duel was over and Xavier was running the other way. The weight of locking down Cotton - who finished the game with 9 points on 4-11 shooting and 3 turnovers - for the entire game caught up to Christon along with the recovering Providence defense, but it didn’t matter. He laid it to a trailing Isaiah Philmore, who dunked it home to give Xavier a two-possession lead.
The next time down, all Semaj did was swipe the ball from Cotton again, but it was the first steal that imprinted itself in the minds of the Xavier faithful. Cotton’s 9 points marked the first time he had been held to single digits since the second game of the season and the last time he’d score in single figures as a college player. When the chips were down and the Muskies had to have a win, Semaj punctuated one of the best defensive performances I’ve ever seen with maybe the most clutch Xavier steal that didn’t involve Lloyd Price. Facing down one of the best guards in the country, Semaj forced him to blink first.