How would you like a team to bounce back from a tough loss in a game they had control of and gave away? I would presume it would look somewhat different than turning the ball over on your first possession and giving up 5 points just over a minute into the game. The Muskies showed a new starting lineup with freshman big Sasa Ciani replacing Abou Ousmane in the starting lineup, and the early returns weren’t positive.
Then the flip switched and Xavier dominated pretty much from there on out. Ciani (6/5/0) got back-to-back buckets, Quincy Olivari (12/5/1) hit the first of his three first half threes, and Des (11/3/7) drove and scored to flip a 5-0 deficit to a 9-5 lead in the blink of an eye. Randy Bennett responded with a timeout.
I don’t know what Bennett discussed in the timeout, but it probably wasn’t executed how he hoped. After starting the half with 5 points on 2-3 shooting, Saint Mary’s scored just 13 points in the final 18:43. Xavier held the Gaels to 5-31 shooting and forced 6 turnovers for that stretch.
Despite that lockdown performance, the Muskies didn’t establish any real separation. With 5 minutes left in the half, the game was tied at 18. From there, Xavier put together the run that put the game out of touching distance for good. Trey Green (10/4/3) hit a driving layup on a 1-on-2 break, then Dayvion McKnight (14/5/4) assisted Quincy Olivari for a three and scored a bucket of his own. With a minute left, Xavier has up 7 with the ball and a chance to establish a greater lead. Instead X turned the ball over, missed the front end of a one-and-one... and somehow extended the lead by 3 thanks to some defensive hustle and Trey Green cashing out three FTs.
Whatever lessons needed learned from Friday’s calamitous second half were on display today. The Muskies held Saint Mary’s to 8 points in the first seven and a half minutes of the second half, a total that Des Claude matched all by himself as Xavier walked a 10-point halftime lead to as many as 18. Only once in the second half did Saint Mary’s close the game back to 10, and Xavier responded with a lob from Des into a monster dunk by Lazar Djokovic (3/4/1).
That was with 6:27 left; Xavier held Saint Mary’s to just 7 points the rest of the way. The Gaels were picked to beat Gonzaga to win the WCC this year; if they play to that potential, this will be a huge piece of Xavier’s resume in March. Even if they don’t, this was a comprehensive win away from home against a very good team for the Muskies. Now Xavier will head home with a chance to play in Cintas for the next month before Big East play begins.
-The kids are alright. Freshman Sasa Ciani got his first start and answered with a very solid performance to anchor the paint. Trey Green remained his effervescent self, functioning as a spark plug for the offense off the bench. Dailyn Swain was conspicuous by his absence on offense, but he was part of Xavier’s half-long lockdown on defense in the first half. Des Claude is still just a sophomore, and his composed performance and 7:1 A:TO helped Xavier stay clear of the Gaels. Lazar Djokovic is still trying to get up to game speed, but the potential is evident. Despite being cobbled together at the 11th hour a little bit, this team is the foundation of something special.
-Defense might be the way forward. In 66 possessions, Xavier gave up just 49 points to Saint Mary’s. They gave up 13 in 31 possessions spanning the half, effectively killing off the game. They only forced 11 turnovers, but Saint Mary’s shot 27.7% inside the arc, 21.7% from deep, and generally couldn’t find a decent look anywhere. That’s an excellent showing in a game X really wanted to get.
-There’s still plenty to clean up. That 7-15 from the line is grotesque and it doesn’t even count the two missed front ends. Xavier got obliterated on the glass at both ends, which might have hurt more if Saint Mary’s could buy a bucket. Abou Ousmane cleaned up the fouls a little, but he still committed 1 every 7 minutes and posted an 82 ORtg. Houston, UConn, Creighton, and Marquette will all punish lapses in a way that Saint Mary’s did not. The result was good; now it’s time to go to work.