What looked like a somber day in Cincinnati was quickly turned around, as the Xavier Musketeers orchestrated a comeback victory after being down by 22 points to beat East Tennessee State.
The whole week off from action seemed to take a toll on the Musketeers in the first half. Xavier was ice cold from the floor while the Bucs were converting many of their shots. The Musketeers assumed a narrow 13-7 lead by the first media timeout of the first half, but the tides turned and ETSU took advantage of Xavier’s troubles.
Basketball is said to be a game of runs, and this was definitely the tale of the tape on Saturday. The Bucs went on a 10-0 run to take a 25-19 lead over the Musketeers and utterly controlled the entire first half. By halftime, the Bucs extended their lead to 39-27.
In the first half, the Musketeers shot just an uncharacteristically bad 29 percent from the floor and 23 percent from three-point range. To the Bucs’ credit, they blocked six Xavier shots in the first half.
ETSU had a double-digit lead at halftime and continued to expose the Musketeers, but Xavier wasn’t out of the fight; They kept chipping away at the lead possession by possession.
Chris Mack whipped out the bag of tricks up his sleeve and the Bucs were woefully unprepared for Xavier’s 1-3-1 defensive package. The zone forced ETSU to get the ball down low even though they are a team that seems to rely heavily on its guards scoring the ball. Naji Marshall was disruptive at the top of the zone and the Musketeers stifled the Bucs in the second half.
Xavier had an uphill climb going into the half and the only way to come back was to start scoring. As the 1-3-1 zone flustered the Bucs, the Musketeers finally answered the call on offense.
Kerem Kanter converted a clutch catch-and-shoot 3-pointer to tie the game at 66 and the Musketeers got a key stop on the defensive end to take the final shot.
Instead of holding for the last shot, Trevon Bluiett put the team on his back and found an opening. He drove and created his own fadeaway mid-range jumper to give Xavier a 68-66 lead. It was the first lead the Musketeers had since early in the first half.
Mack made a smart call and instinctively ordered his team to foul knowing Xavier had fouls to give. This proved to be effective as nearly all of the nine seconds or so tick off the clock in that time period.
The tactic forced the Bucs to have to inbound the ball with just a little over a second left and throw up a shot to win the game. Desonta Bradford had the chance to win the game for the Bucs, but he bricked the shot and the Musketeers came away victorious in a nail-biting come-from-behind victory.
Bluiett: 18 points, 6 rebounds
Naji Marshall: 15 points (5-6 FG), 5 rebounds
Bradford: 20 points, 10 rebounds
Peter Jurkin: 11 points, 8 rebounds
Is this Naji Marshall’s breakout performance?
Need I say more? The freshman Marshall played like a man today and had a major impact on the win today. Not only did Marshall contribute 15 points offensively, but he also spearheaded a defensive stand against the Bucs in the second half on the way to victory. Chris Mack said before the season even started that Marshall looked impressive in offseason workouts and would be ready to go for the season and that certainly showed today.
This kid has the potential to be a special player for Xavier. He played that gritty style of play that you love to see fearlessly attacking the basket and being active on defense. Marshall tied his career high for minutes played and perhaps this play could land him more playing time in the future.
Schedule breaks can be costly
Xavier didn’t have a game for an entire week due to finals week at the school. The lack of game action seemed to cause them to come out pretty flat at the beginning of this game, en route to easily the worst half the team has played the entire year. Luckily, that poor showing to start the game can be put in the rearview mirror as the Musketeers still captured the victory after they overcame such a large margin. For their sake, Xavier doesn’t have another gap this long for the rest of the season except for when it plays Georgetown on Feb. 21 and then Providence on Feb. 28.
Next man up mentality
Every Xavier fan and pretty much anyone who follows Big East basketball knows that Trevon Bluiett is going to be the star of the show. Yet the second best player during any game seems to vary game-to-game. For a stretch, this player was J.P. Macura and for a few games, Kanter was that player. That player was Marshall on Saturday. I see this as a strong point, because this means they don’t have to go to one player (Bluiett) to do all the heavy lifting. This year especially, the Musketeers have proven to be an unselfish team and every win is evidently a true team effort.
Xavier didn't look too hot to start the game, but ultimately engineered one of the biggest comebacks I’ve watched. Chris Mack stresses the importance of defense, and while the team didn’t defend well the first half, it responded the second half and really shut down the Bucs scoring. As ugly as the victory might have been, the Musketeers squeezed out the win and the streak continues.