Senior Night is for games like Travis Taylor had Wednesday at the Cintas Center. Guys don’t just show up and score 19 points, grab 19 rebounds and block six shots against a Top-20 team like Taylor did in Xavier’s 77-66 overtime victory against No. 16 Saint Louis.
Something special is in the air with performances like Taylor’s. The last player to pull down 19 rebounds for Xavier was David West, currently playing with the Indiana Pacers, more than 10 years ago.
It wasn’t just the upperclassmen who were feeling it against the Billikens.
Freshman point guard Semaj Christon scored a game-high 20 points, handed out seven assists and equaled his career-high with seven rebounds as the Musketeers improved to 17-12 by beating a ranked opponent for the second time in the last eight days and again serving notice that nothing in next week’s Atlantic 10 conference tournament can be taken for granted.
“For a freshman going up against an experienced, perimeter-oriented team — they’ve got guys who have been there five years,” said Mack, “those guys are seasoned, veteran guards and to me, at least tonight, he was the best guard on the floor.”
Christon had made just four three-pointers in his first 27 games played but he hit a pair from behind the arc in the first 10 minutes of the first half Wednesday when the opportunity presented itself. Instead of falling in love with the long ball the rest of the game, however, the 6-3, 187-pound Christon did what he does best. He used his quickness and size to take the ball into the lane to create shots for himself and his teammates.
“He’s quick on his feet and he’s a quick learner and he was ready from the get-go,” said Taylor. “He’s a big guard and that creates a lot of match-up problems so I’m glad he was ready.”
Christon hadn’t made a three-pointer since Feb. 9 at Duquesne but he had attempted just three deep shots. He is averaging 15.2 points and 4.6 assists per game. He was named the A-10 Rookie of the Week for a sixth time this past week and is just 10 assists shy of breaking Dedrick Finn’s Xavier freshman record of 139, while he is within 67 points of surpassing Byron Larkin’s freshman scoring record of 492 points.
“Semaj is an attacking guard,” said senior Brad Redford, who is accustomed to taking and making three-pointers. “Whenever he feels like he can get the advantage and get to the basket he’s really great at using his body and getting to the basket almost every time it seems like. Whenever we need a bucket he’s very aggressive and wants the ball in his hands.”
The Saint Louis guard trio of senior Kwamain Mitchell and juniors Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. all gave up at least two inches in height against Christon. Mitchell and McCall eventually fouled out of the game.
Last Tuesday, Xavier ended the 18-game winning streak of then No. 19 Memphis, 64-62, after nearly knocking off Virginia Commonwealth, ranked No. 24 at the time, three days prior. Coming off a disheartening 77-72 home loss to Massachusetts this past Saturday, the Musketeers ended Saint Louis’ 11-game winning streak and deprived it of the chance to clinch a tie for the A-10 regular season title and the top seed in the league tournament.
Xavier didn’t lead until the second minute of the second half against Saint Louis. The Musketeers led by as many as eight points with 11:49 remaining but gave the Billikens the opportunity to send the game into overtime by making just three of their seven free throws in the final 1:36 of regulation. In the extra time, however, they never trailed and made 14 of 16 free throws.
It didn’t hurt that Saint Louis senior forward Cody Ellis, a 36.6 percent three-point shooter who is averaging 10.6 points a game, went 0-for-15 from the field, including missing all 11 of his three-point attempts. Behind Christon and Taylor, however, Xavier made its own luck in this game.
“Our team plays much better when they play desperate,” said Mack. “I think that’s why you see us bounce back after VCU, knocking off a Memphis but maybe not playing as well against UMass and then coming back tonight and beat the 16th-ranked team in the country. We need to bottle that up and be able to do that every single night. That’s what championship teams do.”
The positioning for the A-10 tournament is going to go down to this weekend’s final games. Saint Louis and VCU are tied at the top with 12-3 league records, although the Billikens hold the tie-breaker on VCU by virtue of 76-62 win last month. La Salle (11-4) can claim a share of the title by beating Saint Louis on the road Saturday and getting some help from Temple (10-5) when it hosts VCU on Sunday.
Xavier (9-6) closes out the regular season Saturday evening at Butler. It can finish no worse than the No. 8 seed and possibly as high as fourth depending on how things shake out. It isn’t a news flash that the Musketeers are going to have to win the A-10 tournament to get a bid to the NCAA tournament. If they get play like they did from Taylor and Christon gave them Wednesday, they will have a chance.
“It’s wide open,” said Saint Louis coach Jim Crews. “I can remember last year we were talking and the eight teams that showed up in Atlantic City. You couldn’t tell the difference from the eighth team and the first team as far as we were concerned. It’s a great league, a competitive league and you’ve got to get a little lucky to win. It’s as open as it can be.”