The Xavier Musketeers were on the road for just their second true away game of the season.
In it, they got locked into a back-and-forth game with the Northern Iowa Panthers out in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The 10-point margin of victory wasn't indicative of how close this game really was as the Panthers gave the Musketeers a run for their money. Execution on free throws down the stretch allowed for Xavier to have a buffer and use time to their advantage; something that UNI basically ran out of.
In spite of a turnover-laden first half, the Musketeers rallied in the second half and eventually seized a 77-67 victory over the Panthers.
Xavier had a very slapdash opening minutes of the game beginning with two unlikely turnovers by Trevon Bluiett . Turnovers were a major concern for the Musketeers in the first half, as they gave up the ball seven times by the 12-minute mark. In total, there were 13 such occasions by halftime.
Both teams struggled to score early on McLeod Center’s somewhat unforgiving rims. By the first media timeout, the two teams combined for just 12 points, with UNI edging out Xavier for an early 7-5 lead.
At the under-12, the Panthers were up 14-8, and found success by not allowing Xavier to get the ball inside the paint. Which was something that the Musketeers offense strategy revolves around quite frequently.
Coming out of the timeout, Xavier rolled out with Chris Mack’s go-to zone look, the 1-3-1, but unlike the last game against Marshall, it was only utilized for a short period of time.
The Musketeers started to gain momentum behind an 8-0 run to cut the deficit to just a bucket and at the under four-minute media timeout, Xavier snatched a 25-24 lead. The Panthers struggled to keep up with the Musketeers dribble-drive penetration as they were outmatched by Xavier’s size and quickness.
A last second shot at the buzzer by Kerem Kanter failed and the score at half was deadlocked at 25 points apiece.
In the early stages of the second half, Xavier’s offense was awakened by the deadeye shooting of Kaiser Gates, who missed the team’s last game due to dizzy spells. He drilled two three-pointers giving a five-point edge to the Musketeers
Right after the under-16, Trevon Bluiett came off the court holding his right shoulder. An otherwise scary sight for the Musketeers turned into a sigh of relief when reentered the game a few minutes later. Xavier still had a six-point lead, but Northern Iowa on the doorstep. UNI countered with a 10-0 run to bring the score even at 46.
Xavier’s offense, though, still had fuel left in the tank and reassumed a 54-47 lead by the under the eight-minute mark and by the four-minute mark, the score was tight with Xavier still leading 60-54.
The Musketeers were without Bluiett for the last 2:30 after he fouled out, but at that point, Xavier didn’t really need to score a ton more points moreso than generating a defensive stop.
With under a minute to go, a steal-and-score by J.P. Macura out of a timeout just about sealed the victory for the Musketeers and the win was topped off with an exclamation point steal and breakaway dunk by Naji Marshall to add style points.
Macura: 15 points
Bluiett: 12 points, 7 rebounds
Gates: 11 points, 9 rebounds
Kanter: 10 points, 7 rebounds
Bennett Koch: 26 points, 4 rebounds
This was only Xavier’s second true road matchup, but for the sake of the argument, it is a perfect 2-0 on the season when playing at an opposing team’s home court. This type of victory can prove to be a valuable one with the jump over to a highly-competitive Big East Conference play beginning next Wednesday.
Xavier reveled in the comfort of playing in front of a home crowd over its recent six-game homestand, but now faces another road test. This time, however, it’s against in-conference foe Marquette, who is riding a four-game win streak. Since the Big East provides for a structured home-and-home schedule, Xavier is going to have to win on the road if they want to claim a top 3 spot in the conference.
I suppose Christmas came a little early and my wishes are already coming true. Once again, the Musketeers filled it up from deep and to no surprise, that’s mostly in part due to the return of Macura and Gates. Both were pretty efficient from long range, too. Macura was 3-6 and Gates was 3-5.
In general, the fact that the Musketeers have three reliable shooters from the outside can pay huge dividends in big games. Add another guy in Kanter, who can also shoot well, and Xavier is well equipped to crush teams from beyond the arc.
The turnover rates have to be well, turned over
The first half of this game was marked by sloppy play and this was most noticeable on the stat sheet in the turnover category. Granted some of these turnovers were unavoidable, such as Quentin Goodin going up for a rebound only to land on the baseline. Which, by definition, is considered a turnover. Regardless, the Musketeers can’t afford to have 15 turnovers against an elite Big East team. Luckily, such mistakes can easily be fixed simply by making smarter decisions and handling the ball with more care.
The time has come. Except for one veritable loss to a scorching hot Arizona State squad, the Musketeers have been perfect this season, closing out nonconference play with a 12-1 record. Now, the real test of time begins. Conference play finally kicks off for the Musketeers next Wednesday on the road against Marquette. Excitement is brewing and at the same time, the long road lies ahead because even the most zealous squad can fall victim to the treacherous Big East Conference.