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Xavier closes hard to get a big home win over St. John’s

When the going got tough, the Muskies answered the bell.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The first 36:09 of this game were insufficient to separate these two teams. Entering the final media timeout, the gap between them was no different than it was at the start of the game. The game that would define the rest of Xavier’s season would come down to the final four-minute war.

The game had, in a lot of ways, followed a familiar rhythm. Xavier fought to within a possession or two either way at the half; this time, it was the Muskies holding a 38-34 lead at the break. They were led by a balanced attack, with Dayvion McKnight and Quincy Olivari each chipping in 8, Des Claude having 7 more of his own, and Trey Green having 6 on 2-3 from beyond the arc.

Two stats foreshadowded the second half though. One was Xavier’s 8-11 mark from the line. As you might have guessed by the fact that I led the article by saying the game was tied at the final media timeout, this game was one in which every point would end up mattering.

The second was a two-parter: Joel Soriano’s 3-7 from the floor and Abou Ousmane’s 2 fouls in 10 minutes. When Ousmane was on the floor, the Red Storm’s dominant big man was having to fight for every inch in the paint. Sure, Abou was often selling it to him at the price of personal fouls, but Soriano’s 18 and 14 from the previous meeting of these two teams didn’t seem to be on for a repeat as long as Xavier could keep pounding him with the human battering ram that is their starting center.

With Ousmane back on the floor, X came out of the half strong. Other than a bizarre sequence in which Gytis Nemeiksa collected three personal fouls in three seconds of game time, the Muskies were executing at a decent level and extended their four-point advantage to eight at the first media timeout... which came on Ousmane’s third foul.

Sean Miller swapped in Sasa Ciani and yo-yo’ed the playing time between him and Ousmane. Xavier was able to keep the tempo high, and by the second media timeout of the half, a Dailyn Swain dunk had the home team up 11 and looking to be heading for a crucial home win.

Remember what I said about a familiar rhythm? Throughout the season, the third and fourth wars of the second half have been pivotal momentum segments for Xavier. With the guards having to do most of the heavy lifting on offense, it has looked like their legs have gone out from under them at times as the second halves have worn on. Was that the cause of Quincy Olivari missing threes on consecutive possessions out of the media timeout? I don’t know for certain. Whatever the case was, St. John’s took advantage of a three-and-a-half minute stretch in which Xavier made 0 field goals to cut the lead from 11 to 5.

That stretch kicked off with Ousmane’s fourth foul, which sent him to the bench again. The Johnnies attacked Sasa Ciani relentlessly on the post, with Joel Soriano scoring a quick four and the whole team seemingly converging on the offensive glass. With St. John’s ratcheting up the full-court pressure, a Daniss Jenkins steal from Trey Green that the freshman guard compounded with a foul cut the Musketeers lead to 2 just 4 minutes after it had been 11. The home team was reeling.

Dayvion McKnight steadied the ship with a banked 15-footer that might even have been intentional. The Johnnies responded with an offensive rebound and two made free throws. Dayvion hit a couple of free throws of his own. St. John’s answered that with made jumper by RJ Luis. The teams continued to mirror each other’s production, with Xavier coming down to open a four-point lead only to have St. John’s cut it to two on their turn down. It seemed like the game would come down to who blinked first.

It was Abou Ousmane. With 5:10 and a chance to put X up 6, the big man couldn’t convert a layup. He compounded his issues on the other end, allowing Joel Soriano to grab another of his 7 offensive boards and then fouling him on a shot attempt. Not content with his fifth foul - and ignoring the pleas of the coaching staff to leave the game without incident - he expressed his pleasure overtly enough to gather a technical foul before exiting to the locker room. X dodged a bullet when St. John’s split the four free throws, but one empty possession later and the visiting team tied the game at 73 heading into the final four minutes.

In winning time, it occasionally comes down to who’s the hungrier Howie. Sometimes it just comes down to talent though, and Quincy Olivari has that in spades. Having been held to a fairly inefficient 13 through the first 36+ minutes, he drove to the short corner, spun on his pivot foot, and hit a wheeling, fading, sprawling jumper over the outstretched fingertips of Joel Soriano. Another offensive rebound for St. John’s at the other end led to two made free throws that tied the game with three minutes to play. Des answered with a pair of free throws of his own, and the Muskies got a stop and finally a defensive rebound to give themselves a chance to go up by multiple possesions.

Anton Chekov (God rest his soul) would be disappointed in me if I didn’t pay off that hungrier Howie thing form the previous paragraph, and Dailyn Swain brought his appetite tonight. After your friend and mine Des Claude drove into the paint and had his shot thrown by Chris Ledlum, Swain split an entire red low pressure system worth of Red Storm players to be first to the loose ball. With the shot clock waning, he had just enough time to find Quincy in the corner, who cashed out the clutchest three you can imagine.

If that wasn’t a dagger, his three from the top of the key the next time down surely was. Any flames of hope Rick Pitino’s men were nurturing were snuffed out by his steal on the ensuing possession or the Dayvion McKnight bucket that followed. From there, it was just driving coffin nails from the free throw line.

In a game Xavier had to have, their leaders played like guys who had to have it. Des was a steady hand all night, relentlessly seeking contact, rarely settling, and shooting a staggering 11-12 from the line. Dayvion McKnight took everything St. John’s full court pressure had to throw at him and came out the other side with 6 assists to just a single turnover, a ball-control performance that almost overshadowed his 19 points on 6-9/1-2/6-7 shooting.

And then there was Quincy Olivari. St. John’s had 70 possessions on the night, and they scored on 38 of them. Of the 32 that ended without points, 11 were ended by Olivari, who led a Muskies squad that struggled to seal off the glass with 7 defensive rebounds and kicked in 4 steals for good measure. More than a third of Xavier’s stops came at the hands of Quincy.

That all got Xavier to the final furlong. When it came time to kick for the tape, it was Quincy who had an extra gear left. Entering the final media timeout with 13 points, he closed the game shooting 3-4/2-2/2-2 to add 10 more points and slam the door shut in front of St. John’s. His only miss was a layup that got blocked out of bounds; he converted the inbound play to a made three to put the game out of reach.

Xavier needed this one to keep the season alive. After getting absolutely drubbed by UConn, they hosted a St. John’s team that beat them by 15 earlier in the year and appeared to be hitting a stride. They absorbed the visitors’ best shot, gathered themselves, and came off the ropes swinging. When you bend something far enough and can’t break it, it snaps back with a vengance. The Muskies sent St. John’s home with a painful lesson in Newton’s laws of motion; now X has to avoid the resume punji pit that is a road trip to DePaul on Satruday.