Have you ever just been wrung out? Maybe you had to run until you puked for conditioning for your favorite sport. Maybe you had to bail hay from as soon as the sun had cooked the dew off of it until the light finally failed in the evening. Do you remember feeling like you’d hit a quad or a calf cramp with the next step you took, or having your mouth feel so dry you couldn’t even swallow to clear your ears?
I’d imagine Abou Ousmane was about there with 2:26 to play in today’s game when the teams broke from a Nova timeout. He was on his way to 31 minutes on the game, his second-most of the season. No small lad himself at 6’10”, 240, he had been banging with the burly 6’8”, 255-pound frame of Eric Dixon all night. After 29 minutes of playing time of that kind of abuse and effort, he found himself chasing Dixon - a 38% career three-point shooter - several feet beyond the arc as Xavier attempted to defend a 54-50 lead. He forced the miss, Dixon’s 10th and final one of the night.
Long shots create long rebounds, and TJ Bamba dug out the loose ball near the top of the key. Well-drilled in turning second chances into points, he pivoted down the left side of the lane past a challenging Dailyn Swain. He probably never thought to account for the center that he last saw 30 feet from the rim. Like LeBron in the Finals, Abou appeared from a long way back and beat the layup attempt off the glass.
It wasn’t a sprint through the tape from that point on. Xavier committed a shot clock violation their next trip down and then allowed Brendan Housen - who they once again allowed to look like prime Larry Bird - to shimmy to the rim to cut the lead to 54-52 with 1:12 left. I turned into a free throw shooting contest from there and Quincy Olivari’s 2-2 beat Housen’s 1-2. When Nova needed 3 in the final possession, Xavier instead forced them to dribble around and throw ineffectual passes for 18 seconds until the final horn. It was a bizarre and cathartic meltdown from a team that has tormented Xavier so often in the past.
FINAL: Xavier 56, Villanova 53— Paul Fritschner (@PaulFritschner) February 8, 2024
Villanova doesn’t get a shot off on the final possession. An absolute war at Cintas on Wednesday night.
Just the third time Xavier has beaten Villanova at Cintas since conference realignment. pic.twitter.com/iC9zxuFU6V
That’s how it ended. It started way better for Xavier, as they stormed out to a 19-9 lead. Des Claude shot 2 threes in the first 2:10, but he connected on 1 of them. Dailyn Swain and Dayvion McKnight each had 2 assists, and Villanova was running in sand on the offensive end. Dailyn had a breakaway dunk to put the Muskies up 10 with 9:10 left in the first half. It was all coming up Muskies.
When the first-half horn sounded, they had 23. I know this is cheating a bit, because Quincy had a three in the air that would fall after the horn to take the halftime score to 28-26, but the offense was dire in the final 9 minutes of the half. What looked to be a breakaway win was turning into a dogfight.
It took almost two minutes of second half play for X to get a field goal, with Abou scoring his only make of the game. Fortunately, the defense was stepping up even as the offense was struggling to make headway. From the 19:33 mark when Mark Armstrong hit two FT to the 10:03 mark when TJ Bamba made a layup, Xavier held Nova to 5 points in 9:30 of play on 2-15/0-8/0-0 shooting. Xavier scored 16 points in that time, dragging themselves back into a game that hung on the precipice. They’d ultimately convert that opportunity into a timely win.
A lot of that is down to Abou Ousmane. Abou did not light up the box score tonight. He had 3/9/1 points in 31 minutes on 1-7/0-0/1-2 shooting. The two stats the will leap off the page are his 5 blocks and - for a guy with 11 fouls in 35 minutes over his past 2 games - a single foul. He held Eric Dixon - Nova’s leading scorer - to 13 points on 5-15 shooting with 3 turnovers and helped Xavier win on the glass at both ends.
This was not a commercial for the beautiful game. The pace was apallingly slow, neither team shot well, and highlights were at a premium. In a game that turned into an absolute rock fight, Xavier’s biggest junkyard dog kept himself in the fight and eventually allowed his team to drag a vital win across the finish line.