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Xavier fights hard, fades late at Creighton

Throw this one on the pile of missed opportunities and move on to Connecticut.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Two numbers define this game. The first is Xavier’s 5-15 at the rim. It’s a credit to how well Xavier did a ton of other things that they were in the fight the whole way considering they shot just 33% on layups. The were also just 33% from deep, shooting 7-21 from behind the arc. Despite that, they shot 17-35 from the midrange and 13-14 frm the line to power the offense against one of the best defenses in the nation. Creighton makes it hard for opponents to score, and it sure looked that way for long stretches in this game.

Xavier clearly had a plan against the Creighton defense, and that was center ball screens with the five man to pull Ryan Kalkbrenner away from the rim. Xavier’s guards were digging under the chase over the top, and when Kalkbrenner dropped, the Muskies had looks at the rim from 10-12 feet out. When those were falling, X was scoring. When they were not, it was tough sledding for the away team.

You don’t have to look much farther than Des Claude’s score line to see how that went. He was sensational in the first half, shooting 7-15 from the floor and 4-4 from the line to lead all scorers with 18. He finished the game 7-23. He got to his spots and got shots on the rim, he just couldn’t get them to fall.

The other was free throw shooting. Some of the disparity came from Xavier fouling late, but there’s a sense in which Musketeer fans will feel hard done by in regards to the officiating. Of the 20 fouls called against Xavier, 14 came in the second half. Depending on where your locus of control lies, either the Muskies couldn’t put together a clean 40 minutes of defense or the officials got overinvolved in the second half. Good people everywhere will note that James Breeding was in the building.

Much of the disparity was strategic. One of the ways to play defense without fouling is to be gigantic, and Ryan Kalkbrenner certainly is. When he was around the rim, a lot of Xavier’s drives ended in pull-ups rather than attacks, and that necessarily limits the amount of contact the shooter can draw. Both Dayvion McKnight and Quincy Olivari flashed some really good teardrops over the big man. They were worth two points every time they fell, but they deprived X of chances to score from the line and affect the game with foul trouble.

Despite every obstacle in the way of the Muskies, this one was there for the taking. At the under-12 media timeout, X had a 58-51 lead before a disastrous run of bad luck, bad execution, and questionable officiating turned the tide of the game. Baylor Scheierman drilled a three out of the timeout. After Abou Ousmane split a pair of free throws on what looked to certainly be a hook and hold but drew only a perfunctory review, Scheierman answered in kind at the other end. Unfortunately, Kalkbrenner wedged his way into the lane on the second FT and managed to tap it out for a Scheierman three-point attempt. It was off, but Creighton grabbed another offensive rebound and Scheierman’s third three-point attempt of the last two possessions was true. When Trey Alexander scored the next time down to give Creighton the lead it appeared that the home team had seized the momentum.

The Muskies fought back briefly, with a 4-0 putting them up by 3 heading into the under-8 media timeout. Just as they had before, Creighton immediately drilled a three, then a Trey Alexander steal and score - the fact that he drilled an elbow directly into Dayvion McKnight’s face on the way to the rim drawing no interest from the officials - put the Bluejays up for good. Creighton didn’t get another bucket until there were 4 minutes left in the game, but the 10 free throws they shot in their next 4 trips down the floor were enough to hold Xavier at bay.

There are two ways to look at this game. The first is that, for all the progress Xavier has made over the last couple of months, they’re still a fairly limited team. With Dailyn Swain in the starting lineup, the bench provided 9/12/2 on 3-10 shooting in 65 minutes of play. Creighton hasn’t been a good offensive team for a while now, but they looked like the Dougie McBuckets squads of old at times, especially when they were shooting 8-16 from deep in the second half. Feel how you will about calls, but the refs didn’t do that. If a team has a game plan for Quincy and Des isn’t making every mid-range shot he takes, Xavier’s offense is limited on places to look. A sensational 20 points on 8-15 shooting from Dayvion McKnight might flatter the Muskies a bit.

The other is that, for as frustrating as it was not to be able to finish this one out, this is a house money week for Xavier. Even if the Muskies lose again against UConn on Sunday, they’re not losing too much ground resume-wise. Win the home games and everything against DePaul and Georgetown and they’re still head into the Big East Tournament with a solid at-large case to be made. Opportunities missed have been a theme this year, but - while this certainly was one - it wasn’t a crippling loss. It’s always hard to win at Creighton, and it was again today.

However you look at it, this one, like the 18 before it, is history. It’s another hard fight at UConn on Sunday.