Last game it was the 3-point shooting. Friday night it was the size and ability to convert off of their opponent’s miscues. No matter the attributes called for, Chris Mack’s Musketeers have had what’s needed to start the season, as they moved to 3-0 with an 81-63 victory over an undersized Stephen F. Austin team Friday night in front of 9.514 at the Cintas Center.
Xavier’s 6-10, 270-pound senior center Matt Stainbrook got the best of the Lumberjacks’ biggest starter - 6-foot-6, 210-pound Jacob Parker – in a match-up of two conference preseason all-first teamers. Parker, last year’s Southland Conference Player of the Year, was the game’s leading scorer with 21 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 turnovers, but he scored his points on 17 shots. Stainbrook was unstoppable every time his teammates found him, as he finished 8-of-9 from the field with 20 points, 6 rebounds and an assist.
Xavier outscored Stephen F. Austin, 52-24, in the paint.
The Musketeers handled their opponent's tenacious halfcourt man-to-man deny defense well and did a good job of adjusting to the 3-2 zone look that the Lumberjacks switched to for stretches by only turning the ball over nine times. It marked the second straight game that the Musketeers limited their turnovers to single digits. On the defensive side, they scored 18 points off of 13 Stephen F. Austin turnovers.
Trevon Bluiett’s impressive start to his career at Xavier continued with an efficient 16-point effort on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range in a team-high 34 minutes of action.
Remy Abell rounded out the Musketeers’ double-figure scorers with 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting to go with 2 assists and 2 rebounds.
Thomas Walkup, a 6-4 junior wing that has led the Lumberjacks in scoring through the first two games this season, finished with 17 points (7-of-16 FG, 1-of-3 3PT), 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.
“I told our team after the game that they beat a really, really good team, an NCAA tournament team in my mind,” Mack said. “They represented their conference a year ago, and I don’t see that changing. That was one of the hardest-playing teams that the Cintas Center has ever seen. They’re competitors. They fight, they scrap and they play hard. They’re just a little undersized.”
Xavier’s defense wasn’t able to completely shut Stephen F. Austin’s top weapons down, but it made them work hard for their points. As a team, the Lumberjacks shot just 37.9 percent from the field. While the The Musketeers were more efficient than a team known for its offensive execution in the halfcourt, as they shot 56.9 percent from the field (4-11 3FG) and assisted on 22 of their 33 made field goals.
Before the first media timeout, Xavier pushed the ball well in transition and was able to get easy buckets at the rim to get out to an early lead, but the Lumberjacks buried three 3-pointers in short order to keep it close, 10-9.
Early on in the game, Stephen F. Austin’s offensive game plan was to make Xavier sit down and defend for prolonged possessions. The Lumberjacks didn’t take advantage of fast break opportunities, and they worked the ball diligently around the perimeter, running the Musketeers through a series of dribble handoffs and screens.
Xavier’s defense was far from perfect against the Lumberjacks’ persistent halfcourt offense as they allowed them to hit 5-of-9 from beyond the arc, but it also held them to just 7-of-25 from 2-point range in the first half. The Musketeers’ size gave them trouble when trying to finish in the lane, and they settled for a lot of tough two-point jumpers.
Stephen F. Austin was within three, 31-28, with under three minutes to play in the half, but a big three by Dee Davis doubled the Musketeers’ lead and sparked an 8-4 run to end the half, making it 39-32 at intermission.
Xavier’s offense was balanced in the first half as J.P. Macura and Dee Davis led the team with seven points and Matt Stainbrook and Remy Abell were right behind them with six. Davis also racked up seven assists in the first 20 minutes of action.
Xavier’s lead floated between five and nine for the first several minutes of the second half as the teams traded baskets. The Musketeers always had an answer on offense when they needed it to keep the Lumberjacks from ever getting on a big run, even when they were unable to get stops on the defensive end.
Myles Davis’ and-one drive with 13:33 left pushed Xavier’s lead to double-digits, 53-42, but consecutive wide open threes by Parker brought the Lumberjacks back within four, 57-53, with 10:12 to play.
Stephen F. Austin didn’t go away quietly. Xavier would push it’s lead back up to eight or nine, and then the Lumberjacks would saw back into it, getting it down to a manageable deficit. Precision passing and some skilled jump shooting by the Musketeers helped them go on a 9-0 run that put them ahead 75-61 around the 4:00 mark, and forced Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood to call a timeout.
The Lumberjacks’ offense couldn’t get it going out of the timeout either, as their drought stretched to 4 minutes and 46 seconds. The Musketeers pushed their lead all the way to 20 before Walkup made a layup with 58 seconds to play to make the final score 81-63.
“I thought the difference in the game was down the stretch our guys did not wear down and were able to stay with it defensively,” Mack said. “Their fours and fives are really difficult match-ups for us. In many ways, it’s like defending a Division II team because their fours and fives are 6-5 and they play similar to a two or three at our level. We had Matt Stainbrook trying to guard a guy that went 5-for-10 from the 3-point line. Walkup was being guarded by a four… it’s just a very difficult match-up on that end.”
While Xavier’s size was a major advantage in some ways, it didn’t equal an advantage on the glass. The Musketeers were abused on the offensive boards as Stephen F. Austin hauled in 16, while they only grabbed 6 themselves. The Lumberjacks held a 40-36 edge overall.
Stephen F. Austin’s offense and its perimeter-oriented forwards pulled the Musketeers’ big men away from the basket, and left it up to their guards to box out and grab the rebounds.
“It’s something we need to work on,” Stainbrook said. “We shouldn’t be beat in a rebounding battle, especially with guys of their height. They have a ton of heart, though, and I will say that the offense they run where they’re circling around makes it tough to keep track of your guy and box out your guy. It’s something we’re going to work on, and I think we’ll respond with a little fire in our chest.”
Mack pinned a lot of the responsibility on the guards.
“Our guards at this stage of the season… they don’t like to block out,” Mack said. “We do more block out drills with our guards than a lot of other programs, but it’s obviously not sinking in. We’re going to do it until we’re blue in the face. Our guards have to block out every single time when the shot goes up.”
Xavier will get one final test on its home court on Monday night against Murray State at 7 pm before taking its show on the road for the Wooden Legacy tournament in Anaheim starting on Thanksgiving.