Defense comes to the rescue for Xavier
CINCINNATI – Dee Davis did what he wanted to do against D.J. Balentine. The Xavier junior guard had a hand in the face of Balentine, the Evansville sophomore sharpshooter and fourth-leading scorer in the nation.
Balentine buried a 3-pointer from the right wing anyway, pumping his fist in exaltation as he went back down the court at the Cintas Center after giving the Purple Aces a 13-point lead, 48-35, with 12 minutes, three seconds left to play. It was the biggest lead of the night for Evansville.
The next time Davis got his hand in the face of Balentine for 3-pointer, he forced an errant shot that went long off the back iron of the rim and was rebounded by center Matt Stainbrook to preserve a 63-60 win for the Musketeers Tuesday night.
As bogged down as Xavier was for the first 28 minutes of the game, on both ends of the court, the Musketeers were able to ramp up their pressure defense over the final 12 minutes and come from behind to win for a second straight game after a disastrous 0-3 trip to the Bahamas. It certainly wasn’t pretty but 10 games into this season it’s easy to figure out that’s not who the Musketeers will be when they are successful.
In the mind of Evansville coach Marty Simmons, they perfectly reflect their head coach Chris Mack.
“He was a hell of a player. He could do it all,” said Simmons, who was a senior at Evansville when Mack was being recruited there out of Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School. “He could pass it, shoot it, tough and that’s how they play. I think his team plays with his mentality. They’re a tough team to play against.”
Xavier outscored Evansville 28-12 following Balentine’s made 3-pointer. The Musketeers started working in a full-court press against a Purple Aces team that has one junior in its rotation otherwise made up of freshmen and sophomores. Evansville made six of its 17 turnovers in that final stretch and hit just five of its 14 shots from the field. The Purple Aces were just 2 of 8 from the free throw line.
Xavier had a season-high 12 steals, including four by Justin Martin. Martin added two blocked shots, one of which came with 1:55 left and the game tied 58-58. Balentine had drawn two defenders on a baseline drive before dishing off to center Egidijus Mockevicius for what appeared would be an easy layup. Martin swatted the ball away.
Martin’s second blocked shot was against Balentine with 0:20 left. Semaj Christon kept the ball from going out of bounds and was eventually fouled.
“In any game and at any point defense is always the main focus for us,” said Martin. “We weren’t the team we know we can be in the first half, and even a little bit in the second half so we had to bear down and get stops and impose our defensive will that we practice every day on.
“We were able to force some turnovers and get them rattled, get them out of their rhythm. Anytime we can do that it’s always good.”
Balentine was averaging 24.9 points through Evansville’s first nine games, including eight games with 22 or more points. He was shooting 44.2 percent from 3-point range. Xavier held him to 15 points and just 2 of 7 from behind the arc. Simmons called a timeout with 5.5 seconds left to get a final shot at the basket. Balentine was able to get a decent look but Davis was again in his face.
“Don’t foul,” said Davis of his thoughts on the final shot by Balentine. “He had a pretty good look for how he shoots.”
Evansville out-rebounded Xavier 38-35. It’s the fourth straight game the Musketeers have been at a disadvantage on the boards. Their saving grace was Stainbrook, who had a career-high 15 rebounds as part of his second double-double as a Musketeer.
That’s surely something Cincinnati will take notice of heading into Saturday’s Skyline Crosstown Classic at US Bank Arena downtown.
“This team has grown in close games,” said Mack. “We’ve been able to make some winning plays down the stretch. Certainly don’t want to be in that situation but our team maybe a year ago doesn’t finish these types of games, maybe loses these types of games. It’s really good to see us get a defensive stop, to see Justin Martin come over and make a key block at the end of the game, for Matt Stainbrook to go to the free throw line and make both of his and Semaj to be able to draw a foul and go 13 of 17.
“Hopefully that gives us a lot of confidence when we’re in close games to be able to make plays down the stretch. We don’t need any
type of springboard, positive or negative, heading into a game like the Cincinnati game.”