Defense allows Musketeers to X-hale

The way Xavier beat Providence on Saturday was just as important as the Musketeers breaking their losing streak.

Xavier Musketeers forward Jalen Reynolds (1) blocks the shot of the Providence Friars forward Carson Desrosiers (33) during the second half at the Cintas Center. Xavier defeated Providence 59-53.

Frank Victores / USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- Semaj Christon knew what was coming before the basketball ever headed towards Bryce Cotton. Christon is better known for his offensive skills but offense hasn't been the problem for Xavier the past few weeks. The Musketeers had lost their last three games and four of the last six because they couldn't keep other teams from scoring.

Cotton can score the basketball, as they like to say. Only Creighton All-American Doug McDermott does it more proficiently among Big East players than Providence's senior guard and, with less than a minute to play and Xavier clinging to a two-point lead, 55-53, the ball was in Cotton's hand.

Only momentarily, though.

Christon stripped the ball free from Cotton near midcourt and fed it to teammate Isaiah Philmore for a slam dunk with 42.9 seconds remaining to put a symbolic and emphatic seal on Xavier's 59-53 win Saturday at Cintas Center.

Breaking the losing streak was of immediate importance for the Musketeers. How they went about breaking it can have resonance for the rest of the season.

Xavier was second-to-last in the Big East in scoring defense during conference play coming into the game, giving up 74.8 points a game. The Muskies had allowed 40 or more points in a half in eight of their first nine conference games, including an average of 45.5 points in the second halves of their last four games. Providence put up 46 points against them after halftime two weeks ago in an 81-72 win in Rhode Island.

The Friars managed just 21 points in the second half Saturday and held Cotton, who was averaging 21.3 points a game, to just nine points on 4-of-11 shooting. It was just the second time this season and fourth time in the last two years Cotton has not scored in double figures. Cotton had 25 points and seven assists without a turnover against Xavier in their first contest. He had seven assists Saturday but also three turnovers.

Those turnovers, and the win, were more about what Xavier did than anything else.

Xavier went scoreless for seven minutes, 22 seconds after Matt Stainbrook grabbed a loose ball and put it in the basket with 8:21 remaining to give the Muskies a 54-48 lead yet they never lost the lead.

"We got over that we didn't score and we got the next stop," said Christon. "It's a great confidence boost. The second half has been kind of rough for us the last couple of games. I think we just stayed locked in the whole game. We wanted to win so bad that everybody was locked in and did what we had to do."

Christon is averaging 17.1 points a game but Saturday wasn't his most prodigious on the offensive side of things. He only attempted eight shots and the 12 points he scored was his fewest since the Big East opener against St. John's on New Year's Eve but Christon was at the heart of Xavier's defense. He had the main responsibility of guarding Cotton.

He chased Cotton around and through screens. Xavier did a good job of doubling up on Cotton when need be, forcing him to give up the ball.

"(Cotton) ignites them and is the guy that makes them go. He controls the tempo extremely well," said head coach Chris Mack. "The challenge for (Christon) was to be able to keep him in front and keep his body and his length in front of him when he took those shots. He did a great job but the rest of our team was right there defensively as well. You can't hold a team to 21 points if you're just concentrating on one player."

Mack has been frustrated by his team's play, especially on the defensive end, for some time. Xavier is now 16-7 overall, 6-4 in the Big East and alone in third place just ahead of Providence (16-8, 6-5). As this recent stretch has shown, the Musketeers won't win by simply outscoring teams. They need a stronger defensive presence.

They finally got that Saturday. With road games at Butler and Marquette coming up in the next week, it was perfect timing.

"It's about us, it's about our identity. We really needed to make a positive step," said Mack. "We weren't all of a sudden become... Cincinnati. But we needed to make a positive step and stop playing like a sieve in the second half. I loved our effort on the defensive end."