CINCINNATI – To the fans involved with this deep-seated, geographical rivalry, Wednesday night’s Dayton-Xavier game was about the streak.
It’s been so long that we can go ahead and call it The Streak. Not since Jan. 10, 1981, has Dayton beaten Xavier in the city of Cincinnati, spanning 27 games, dozens of memorable teams on both sides and — just barely — six presidents.
While Dayton’s starting lineup was introduced Wednesday night, Xavier students held up full-color pictures of all six of those United States Presidents. At tip-off, they chanted “Jimmy Carter.”
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Thanks to a huge rebounding edge and a little luck late, those Presidents will be back next year. By the wild end of what became a 66-61 Xavier victory, those students were off to party like it was 18 years before 1999.
Xavier won the game in large part because it won rebounding battle, 36-18. The two biggest rebounds of the game came in the last 20 seconds when Xavier, clinging to a one-point lead, Xavier twice missed the front end of a one-and-one situation but twice came up with the rebound. Finally, Dee Davis made two free throws to push the lead to three, and a 3-pointer that would have tied the game by Dayton’s Matt Derenbecker rimmed out with just over a second left.
When it was over, the Xavier students danced with their Presidents. Xavier’s players exhaled.
“Tonight we handled any pressure that I think anybody was trying to add,” Xavier senior Jeff Robinson said. “It’s a great feeling to put a full 40 minutes together. It being Dayton on the other side, it’s an even greater feeling.”
Robinson had 12 points and 5 rebounds. Davis, who finally hit those two late free throws, had 14 points and 3 assists. Freshman Semaj Christon scored 13, and Travis Taylor scored 8 points and had a game-high 11 rebounds.
The Muskeeters got 35 second-chance points to the Flyers’ 10. At one point, Dayton had 13 total rebounds and Xavier had 14 on the offensive end.
“I thought Xavier played with great toughness and great energy,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “They willed themselves to a victory. We were out-muscled, out-toughed around the basket all night. It’s kind of unexplainable to be honest.”
Dayton came in as the Atlantic 10’s best rebounding team, and most of this game was played in the paint. But it was Xavier that kept getting the second and third chances, and the Musketeers produced 42 of their 66 points in the paint. Xavier never led by more than 4 in the final 10 minutes, as Dayton point guard Kevin Dillard (12 points) led a rally after being held scoreless in the first half.
But Christon kept getting baskets, Davis kept finding open players in the paint and Taylor kept grabbing rebounds. Even when Christon fell down on the game’s final possession and Dillard found Derenbecker, it worked out for Xavier. Derenbecker’s shot hit both sides of the rim before falling out and in to the hands of Justin Martin.
“The Basketball Gods don’t reward you when you don’t deserve to win,” Miller said. “We didn’t deserve to win tonight because we didnt play with toughness on the backboards.”
Xavier improved to 12-8, 5-2 in the Atlantic 10 and could be tied for first in the conference headed into the weekend if Saint Louis beats visiting Butler on Thursday night. Dayton slips to 12-8, 2-4.
Nothing’s over — and any result is far from certain — in this new, improved, and ultra-competitive Atlantic 10. That’s why it was so important for Xavier to grab those rebounds and protect its home court, and so deflating for Dayton to keep fighting back but still come up short.
Xavier came off two straight road losses and has two more road games ahead. But the Musketeers go forward thinking positively, a late-December rut in the rearview because Robinson is back in stride, Christon is looking a superstar in the making and, as Robinson said, a “togetherness late in games” is there.
So is a certain toughness. This isn’t the team anybody at Xavier had envisioned it would have, but a bunch of dismissals and bad news and bad losses later, it’s the team the Musketeers have. It’s right where Xavier usually is, right in the thick of things with February coming.
“It’s not like we’re perfect,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “But our kids know that if you defend and rebound, you’ll always be in the game. Can you finish? Can you wim close games? That’s another story.
“Every A-10 game has been a one or two-possession game in the last four minutes. We’re learning in those experiences. If the defense and rebounding are there, we’ll be in every game.”