Xavier Beats Dayton, Advances to Semis

With the Bracketologists saying Xavier needed to beat its rival Dayton to solidify its spot in the big dance, the Musketeers' three veteran standouts were able to edge out the Flyers in a thriller.

Behind the play of junior Mark Lyons and seniors Kenny Frease and Tu Holloway, Xavier overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to escape with a 70-69 win. Holloway led all scorers with 21 points, while Frease added 17 points and seven rebounds. Lyons finished with 12 points, and really responded well after a sluggish first half shortened by foul trouble, to make some big plays for the Muskies down the stretch.

Lyons' biggest shot of the game came with 21 seconds left when he drove down the left side of the lane, covering the ball with both arms on his way up like a running back to shield it from defenders and then finishing with a high-arching right-handed kiss off the glass to put Xavier on top 70-69 on their final possession of the game.

The Muskies' defense had to force not one, but two stops on the other end before the final buzzer signaled their win.

After Lyons' layup, Dayton called a timeout with 17 seconds left to draw something up. The resulting play was a very good look within four feet of the basket for big-man Matt Kavanaugh, but his attempt was off-target, and Xavier knocked the ball out of bounds in the scramble for the rebound with 5.4 seconds remaining.

After each team burned another timeout, Chris Johnson missed a 3-pointer with Lyons flying out to contest him. Dez Wells hauled in the rebound and threw ahead to Holloway as time expired.

Xavier's defense was crucial not only on that final possession, but for the final three minutes, as they held Dayton scoreless and erased a five-point deficit in that time span.

"Either team could have won, as both teams are hard playing and I thought it came down to us being able to get a few stops in the last four minutes of the game," Xavier Head Coach Chris Mack said. "Down five, didn't look good and we said in the final TV timeout huddle, 'This is it. This is what we worked for all year,' and we were able to go out on the defensive end and get stops and these guys made huge plays."

Frease has been a big key to Xavier's success as of late, averaging 14.8 points per game and 10 rebounds over the last four contests of the regular season. While he was able to carve out space and demand the ball inside early on, he got off to a slow start. The Flyers put him on the free-throw line where he struggled mightily finishing just 1-for-6 in the first half.

Frease wasn't the only one struggling at the charity stripe though, as the Musketeers finished the half shooting a meager 37.5 percent from the line.

The misses mounted, and combined with some turnovers towards the end of the half, the Flyers turned a 24-21 lead at the under four minute media timeout into a 38-28 halftime lead. While the missed free-throws and shoddy defense at the end of the first half was frustrating to players, coaches and fans alike, the Musketeers were executing their game-plan, and it'd be the same game-plan that would lead them back in the second half.

"For us to go in the locker room down 10, I told our kids I thought it was a function of we couldn't make a free-throw," Mack said. "We go 6-for-16 in the first half shooting free-throws and you're not going to be in many games if you can't make 'em."

"We like to get the guys in the lane and put pressure on Dayton and we tried to do that more in the second half."

Holloway stormed his troops back out onto the court and immediately carved into the deficit out of the locker rooms at halftime. Six straight points from Holloway on an and-one, and then a step-back three that made Dillard nearly fall, made it 38-34. After a Dayton bucket at the other end, Holloway found Frease with a wraparound pass and the big man power-flushed it with two hands while being fouled. His free-throw made it 40-37 and forced a Dayton timeout. Out of the timeout, Lyons' scored to make it a one-point game, 40-39, and just like that Xavier was back in the game.

"I tried to be aggressive from the first play of the game," Holloway said when asked what got him going out of the halftime. "Once again, I'm a senior and this is my last crack at it and I wanted to be able to get into the NCAA Tournament, so you've got to have intensity in your game."

Frease's free-throw at the 12:45 mark gave Xavier their first lead, 47-45, since the 16:00 mark of the first half. Two more free-throws from Frease a possession later made it 49-45.

"He's played well the last three or four weeks, he really has. When you look at his statistics over the last few games, he is right at a double-double. These guys are getting confidence in 'em and we're putting them in better positions around the basket and I think he is manning the ball."

A Josh Parker 3-point play with 12:12 remaining cut it back to a one-point game and curbed Xavier's run.

From there, it was back and forth the rest of the way.

Dillard, who scored 16 and 20 the first two games against Xavier, was once again difficult to contain. He drilled two early threes on his way to 18 points, with six assists and only one turnover.

The Musketeers changed up defensive looks more in the second half, and utilized their 3-2 zone alignment to slow Dayton's offense down some.

Now looking like a lock for the big dance, the Musketeers are trying to shine their slippers and knock off some rust with an Atlantic-10 Championship run. First though, they'll have to get past the tournament's two seed, Saint Louis.

"You know, they're a tough team," Lyons said about the Billikens. "They're mentally tough on defense and offense, got a bunch of great shooters, and you've got to be ready defensively and be ready to play."

Tipoff is scheduled for 3:30 Saturday afternoon with a trip to the Atlantic-10 Championship game on the line.

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