Even as the phrase “must-win” becomes vastly overused this time of year, Tuesday night’s game against DePaul (14-14, 2-13) was never a “must-win” for Xavier (18-10, 7-8). Losing it would have done a fair amount of damage to their Tournament profile as it would have been the Musketeers’ second loss outside of Quadrant 1. Instead of a “must-win,” Tuesday’s home game against DePaul was more of a “can’t lose” which Xavier avoided by knocking off DePaul 78-67 at Cintas Center.
Despite a couple of moments where DePaul drew close, Xavier nearly controlled this game wire-to-wire. The Blue Demons grabbed a very early 6-5 but a Jason Carter three gave the Musketeers a lead that they never wound up relinquishing and Xavier took a 44-36 lead into halftime. DePaul was able to cut the Xavier lead to three early in the second half, but the Musketeers held a double-digit lead throughout most of the second half. Xavier’s largest lead of 16 came in the final minutes before the walk-ons closed out the game.
A glance at the stat sheet reveals that this was a bit of a bizarre game for both teams. Xavier entered the game in the top-25 nationally in rebounds and around 300th in three-point shooting. DePaul won the rebounding battle 40-25 but Xavier went 12-25 from deep to make up for it. The Blue Demons were 16th nationally in turnovers forced per game and they had Xavier cough up the ball 14 times — problem was that DePaul gave the ball away 22 times.
Despite dealing with a variety of injuries throughout the game, Naji Marshall was the star for the Musketeers stuffing the stat sheet with a team-high 23 points (8-13), six rebounds, six assists, and three steals. Zach Freemantle added 11 points, six rebounds, and three steals while Paul Scruggs added 12 points and Kyky Tandy contributed 10. Carter added nine points while going 3-3 from deep. Big East rebounding leader Tyrique Jones’ double-double streak ended at nine straight games, as he was held to just nine points and five rebounds.
The biggest bright spot for DePaul came in the form of Paul Reed. The conference’s second-leading rebounder won the battle of the bigs against Tyrique Jones, finishing with 14 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks. Like Marshall, Romeo Weems battled through an injury to score 16 points, grab six rebounds, and take five steals. Charlie Moore scored 12 and Jaylen Butz added 11 to round out Blue Demon double-digit scorers. Also of note: the conference’s favorite walk-on Pantelis Xidias recorded a trillion in the final moments of the contest.
Next up, Xavier will head to Georgetown (15-12, 5-9) Sunday for a game with massive NCAA Tournament implications. A Xavier win would put the Musketeers in a secure position two weeks before Selection Sunday while a Georgetown win would keep fading hopes of an at-large bid alive. A win would also put Xavier closer to continuing the nation’s longest streak of finishing .500 or better in conference play as the Musketeers need to win two of their final three (@GT, @Prov, But) to continue that distinction. Xavier won the first match-up 66-57 on Jan. 22. Sunday’s game will tip-off at 2 p.m. and be televised on CBS.
Meanwhile, DePaul will try to salvage what’s left of the season by sweeping Butler when the two match-up at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. One of DePaul’s biggest wins of the season came when the Blue Demons beat the then-No. 5 Bulldogs 79-66 on Jan. 18. That game will tip at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and be televised on FS1.