With Dee Davis and Justin Martin both out of the lineup due to concussion symptoms, Semaj Christon led the Musketeers with 18 points, but it was the post play of Matt Stainbrook and the tough interior defense by his teammates that stood out.
The two teams had opposite game-plans defensively. Xavier wanted to pack its defense in tight to respect Tennessee's post players, and force the Vols to beat them from the outside. Tennessee extended out and tried to pressure Xavier's guards more. The results worked in Xavier's favor.
Much like last year's meeting between the two programs, the game was far from pretty in the first half. Tennessee shot just 26.7 percent from the field and missed nine free-throws (3-for-12), while Xavier struggled with finishing at the rim and turning the ball over. After turning it over 19 times against the Vols last year, XU had already committed 12 at the half Tuesday night.
Stainbrook and senior forward Erik Stenger set the tone on the first few possessions by bodying up against Tennesssee's standout big men, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. The Vols' duo never got going, as Stokes got in foul trouble and played only five minutes after getting frustrated early, and Maymon was just 1-for-6 in the first half.
"It definitely had to do with staying down on their shot fakes and staying in front of them," Stainbrook said about the key to X's post defense. "Overall the bigs did a great job of staying in front, walling up and not leaving our feet, and then a lot of credit to the guards. They shrunk the floor. It made our job a lot easier."
Tennessee struggled to put the ball in the basket at all for the first 10 minutes of the game. At the 10:00 mark, Xavier held a 14-4 lead, and the Vols were just 1-of-17 from the field.
The attention Tennessee's defense paid to Xavier's guards spaced the floor out and left the Vols' post players on an island against Stainbrook. He finished the half with six points and five boards, while Stenger and Philmore each pitched in with four points and four rebounds.
The Volunteers, picked to finish third in the SEC this season, didn't fold after their horrific start on offense. Xavier's 12 turnovers and multiple misses from point-blank in the first half allowed Tennessee to make it a four-point game, 24-20, with 39 seconds to play.
Xavier freshman Myles Davis came up with his first clutch shot of the night on the Musketeers' final possession of the half when he nailed a 3-pointer from the right wing off of a set play out of the timeout to make it 27-20 at intermission. The 20 points were the fewest scored by a Xavier opponent since Memphis put up 20 in the first half of its 64-62 loss at Cintas Center last February.
Xavier out-rebounded Tennessee 26-22 over the first 20 minutes, which was more understandable with Stokes' only playing five minutes. The Musketeers didn't relent in the second half though. They continued to be the more physical team on the glass and won the battle of the boards, 40-34, while matching the Vols on the offensive glass, 14-14, and out-scoring them 13-4 in second chance points. The key was Xavier's fundamentals when rebounding. While the Musketeers don't have gifted out-of-area rebounders, they put a body on their man and gave a consistent effort for all 40 minutes.
Tennessee picked it up a bit in the second half. A dunk by Stokes, and then back-to-back steals and layups by Antonio Barton and Armani Moore cut Xavier's lead to 37-34 at the 14:00 mark. After a jumper by Christon, Barton nailed a three to make it a two-point game. That's when Davis came through with another clutch 3-pointer for X. Barton continued the onslaught with another jumper, but back-to-back buckets by James Farr gave Xavier a seven-point lead to make it 46-39 at the under 12:00 media timeout. Barton, who was held scoreless in the first half, scored all 10 of his second half points in a four minute stretch from 14:30 to 10:30.
"Even though they hit some tough shots and made us feel a little bit eerie at the end, we had guys that showed that they can step up when they are needed," Stainbrook said. "That just shows to our 'next man up' mentality."
Xavier had pushed its lead back to 10 with 2:40 to play, but they had to hold off another scoring barrage by Tennessee. A three by Josh Richardson and then back-to-back triples by Jordan McRae, plus a few missed free-throws by the Muskies, made it a two-point game with seven seconds left, but Davis made a pair of free-throws to seal the win. He finished the game by making 5-of-6 attempts from the line, after his team started just 7-of-18.
"Definitely," Davis said about whether he wanted the ball down the stretch to be sent to the free-throw line. "After I missed my first one, I was upset with myself, but everyone just told me to stick with it. After that, every one felt good, and I'm glad that I had that opportunity."
Davis finished the game 3-of-5 from the field, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range, with 13 points, two assists and three rebounds. Stainbrook finished with 12 points and nine boards.
The win was a big one for the Musketeers in just the second week of the season. Not only do they now own a win against one of the top teams in the SEC for their tournament resume, but they also built some confidence that they can battle through adversity together against a tough opponent.
"It's huge," Stainbrook said. "It gives us the confidence that we beat a team that has been recognized as being very good - another team isn't going to come in and walk all over us - it sort of helps us out in that sense."