Musketeers handle the moment
CINCINNATI — Xavier had never before sold standing room only tickets for one of its basketball games at the Cintas Center but Saturday was something different. The calendar has turned to March. Creighton is not only ranked No. 10 in the nation in the USA Today coaches’ poll but the Blue Jays are in first place in the Big East and on their roster is senior Doug McDermott, the leading candidate for National Player of the Year honors.
Creighton represented a major opportunity for Xavier.
The Musketeers responded to that opportunity with a 75-69 win before 10,483 fans, the largest crowd in the building since it opened in 2000.
In its biggest moment of the season (so far), Xavier handled the situation like it had been there before. The Musketeers likely all but locked up a return bid to the NCAA tournament because of their attitude. Even though there was plenty to celebrate, there was no court-storming after the final horn blared.
There was a sense of reality.
"We’ve got a game on Monday (at Seton Hall)," said senior forward Justin Martin. "You can’t get too excited… This feeling is surreal. Every win is a good win but you can’t ponder a win or a loss too long. We’ve got a quick turnaround."
Martin scored 19 points and had 16 rebounds for the first double-double of his career. Semaj Christon led the Musketeers with 21 points to go along with three assists and four steals. Dee Davis had 15 points, including making four 3-pointers, and five assists.
"Everyone is excited. I’m excited. I might not show it but it was a great win for the team," said Davis.
Xavier is now 20-9 on the season and 10-6 in the Big East, good for third place depending on the outcome of Sunday’s Marquette at Villanova game. The program has won 20 or more games in eight of the last nine seasons and 16 of the last 20 seasons. It beat a top-10 team for the first time since 2007 and beat a top-10 team at home for the first time since 2004.
Given the intensity of the crowd and the revved atmosphere it would have been easy for Xavier to start fast and then fizzle. When Creighton turned a 13-point deficit into a one-possession game with 5:27 left to play, Xavier could have folded. It went 3:27 without scoring during that stretch.
Instead it built its lead back up to nine points and finished off the win.
Head coach Chris Mack didn’t say much to his players about handling the situation.
"I didn’t have to tell them that. I tried to be that," said Mack. "I tried to make sure I was even-keeled with the officials, really make sure I didn’t get emotionally caught up in the game because players are going to feed off of me. If there is a bad call either on the offensive or defensive end I’m not going to lose my mind. There’s a long game to be played."
Only nine players in the history of college basketball have scored more points than McDermott. He had scored 35 against Xavier on Jan. 12 in Omaha when Creighton beat the Musketeers 95-89. McDermott’s teammates also helped out a lot, especially forward Ethan Wragge, who buried five 3-pointers from pretty much wherever he wanted in that game.
McDermott still got his points on Saturday, 27 to be exact, but no other Blue Jays player reached double figures. Wragge and guard Grant Gibbs had nine points each.
"We’ve been ranked nationally for most of the season, so that puts an X on your back to begin with," said Creighton coach Greg McDermott. "Xavier has a lot to play for. They want to make sure they’re in the NCAA tournament. I think they were in win or lose today but a win over a high RPI team like ourselves is going to do them a lot of good. Our guys were well aware of what was at stake.
"That’s why I found it a little troubling that we didn’t turn our fight as quick as we needed to because Xavier certainly had it from the outset."
The Musketeers played with the needed intensity throughout the game. That hasn’t necessarily always been the case this season, especially when they’ve gone on the road, but with consecutive wins at St. John’s and now Creighton after a lackluster performance at Georgetown a week ago the Musketeers are showing signs that they could be in for bigger and better things.
"I know this team is an NCAA tournament team but we have a lot left to play for before that party even happens," said Mack. "It’s about that consistency that we’ve talked about. When our team is playing at a high level and we’re locked in, I think we’re pretty good. I think we’re really good."
Follow on Twitter FSOhio_KGoheen