For the first time this season, the game didn’t go Xavier’s way.
For the first time this season the Musketeers ran up against a frontline that was, not only taller, but more athletic than their own.
The result was UTEP winning the battle of the boards (40-31), and some of Xavier’s inefficiencies on the defensive end getting exposed, as the Miners pulled out the 77-73 win over the Musketeers on Friday in the second round of the Wooden Legacy tournament.
“They crushed us on the glass,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “Vince Hunter is one of the top ten or fifteen rebounders in the entire country. We knew that going in. They play with tremendous physicality. I thought we matched it early on, but as the game wore on we didn’t. That’s what is disheartening. A lot of people have been saying some great things about our team, but until we can find the toughness on the other end we’ll come up on the short end of these type of games.”
Xavier will play Long Beach State on Sunday at 4 pm for third place in the event. Long Beach lost to Washington, 80-70, Friday night. Xavier beat the 49ers at the Cintas Center, 97-74, on November 18.
The two teams went back-and-forth for much of the game. Xavier even held a 38-33 lead at halftime, and was out-rebounding UTEP by seven at that point.
The Musketeers didn’t play poorly, but the small things that went wrong for them and right for the Miners in the second half added up quickly and equaled a loss to an inferior opponent on a neutral court.
“All credit to UTEP,” Mack said. “They were a very physical team. I thought at halftime we were at a good position. Vince Hunter came out and the way he played to begin the half getting offensive rebounds and loose balls, just being the toughest player on the floor carried through to the rest of their team. I thought that was the storyline of the game to me and their ability to come up with loose balls, offensive rebounds, not getting bumped off their drives and conversely we were on the opposite end. No shame in losing to a really good UTEP team, but really disappointing with some toughness plays that we should have made and had the opportunity to make and didn’t.”
While UTEP isn’t known as a jump shooting team, the Miners got looks from the perimeter that they were comfortable with against Xavier’s defense and knocked them down at a 40 percent clip (8-for-20). Xavier’s 3-point defense currently ranks 302nd in the country as they’ve allowed opponents to shoot 39.7 percent from beyond the arc on the season so far.
They also got to the free-throw line at a much higher rate than any of Xavier’s previous opponents. The Miners were 17-of-26 from the charity stripe, while the Musketeers were just 9-of-15.
Xavier struggled to finish around the basket as a team. While the Musketeers came into the game with one of the highest 2-point percentages in the nation, they shot just 47 percent from inside the arc against UTEP and missed multiple shots from point blank range.
Senior leaders – center Matt Stainbrook and point guard Dee Davis – had their worst performances of the year, and were unable to give their youthful team a boost down the stretch when they were facing a deficit in the closing minutes for the first time all year. Davis again made some poor shot selections, and Stainbrook had major issues when it came to defending ball-screens on the defensive end. He also looked a little flat throughout the game on both ends – potentially a consequence of the big man playing on consecutive days.
Freshman wing Trevon Bluiett finished second on the team with 13 points and five rebounds, but even he showed his first signs of struggle this season, particularly when it came to finishing around the basket. He was 0-for-4 from 2-point range for the game, including a crucial wide-open layup with 57 seconds left that would have made it a one-point game.
The Musketeers got one final desperation try with three seconds left, trailing 76-73, but their full-court in bounds play went awry when UTEP’s Vince Hunter out-jumped Stainbrook for J.P. Macura’s high pass and intercepted it to seal the win.