Xavier had an offense that looked invincible, a combination of post-up monsters, isolation wizards and step-back perimeter shooters who could hit from anywhere. They airballed their last three shots in a game they lost 75-70 to Florida State with a Sweet Sixteen bid on the line.
Over the last four years, Trevon Bluiett has won 104 games and hit so many big shots that Sunday was expected to follow the ordinary pattern– Bluiett was going to put the nail in the coffin like always. He said he saw the basket getting bigger last season when he averaged 25 points per game in Xavier’s three tournament wins, so this time he’d continue to fire away.
It was equally shocking and strange to watch him fumble the ball away. The arena gasped when his two late shot attempts with 75 and 46 seconds to go didn’t go a certain way. His way.
Chris Mack summed it up. “Pretty emotional ending,” he said.
With nine minutes to go, Xavier held a 59-48 lead and looked to be headed to the second weekend of the tournament for the second straight time. The apocalyptic minutes that followed were new for everyone involved.
Because Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin weren’t spry enough to see action, Xavier played a three-big lineup that according to KenPom hadn’t seen the floor much all season. And then their rotation– down to 7 – had something happen that it couldn’t afford. J.P. Macura, who led Xavier with 17 points, had fouled out with two minutes to go. The Musketeers scored just one basket for the rest of the way.
Macura, a self-described competitor, still tried to make an impact from the sidelines. When Xavier was on defense, he pumped up the crowd. During timeouts, he spoke in the huddle.
“What I did tell them was to stay poised and take care of the ball, and make plays,” Macura said. “Unfortunately, down at the end of the game, they made more plays than us, and they won.”
The difference between Xavier’s raucous start and subdued finish, Mack said, was a defensive adjustment from Florida State. A Seminole defender, usually forward Terence Mann, went everywhere Bluiett did, and as Xavier dribbled the ball up the floor, Mann usually was looking Bluiett in the eyes. When the refs left him, he put his arm on Bluiett’s chest.
“They’re an excellent defensive team,” Mack said. “They pressure. They didn’t lose him often.”
With the trouble Bluiett was having creating his own shot and after failing to convert his previous two attempts, Xavier drew up its last chance for Kerem Kanter down three with 7 seconds left. Mack designed a pick-and-pop play they’ve run for him all season. The graduate transfer, who shoots 34 percent from beyond the arc, hit the exact same shot to beat Eastern Tennessee State in December, but Sunday night his attempt went like the rest at the end. Airball.
That’s how it all ended, the careers of 4 seniors who have carried Xavier to its first No. 1 seed.
“If it wasn’t for them, Xavier wouldn’t be who Xavier is today,” sophomore Tyrique Jones said. “I don’t even know where to start, they have done so much for this program”
While Mack said he’s not thinking about next season as the start of a new era, the pieces will be vastly different. Few groups of seniors amount 104 wins. Few groups of seniors, Mack said, impact a culture like Bluiett, Macura and O’Mara.
“I couldn’t ask for a better group, a more selfless group, a group that thinks about team before self,” he said next to a crying Macura. “Byron Larkin graduated, David West graduated, Trevon Bluiett is going to graduate.”
From here, where Xavier turns with the ball in crunch time is as puzzling as why Bluiett’s last moment didn’t go his way. Not all moments all shining. Not all last minute shots even hit the rim.