Xavier didn’t exactly pass a test with Sunday afternoon’s defensive effort against Florida Gulf Coast, but the Musketeers executed well and seemed to respond to the challenge put forth by their coaching staff following last Saturday’s loss at Auburn.
Xavier held the Eagles, who are ranked 176th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, to just 37 percent shooting from the field in a 71-57 win in front of 9,908 fans at the Cintas Center. FGCU failed to score 30 points in either half.
“That’s what good teams do,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “It’s been a common problem for us that in our losses 28 or 29 points is about what we give up in the first half, but in the second half its 45 or 46, an astronomical number, and quite honestly we’re not that talented that we’re still going to win the game. Tonight we gave up 28 points in the second half which was a point less than the first.”
The real test will come Wednesday night when the Musketeers tip off conference play at 10 pm against Georgetown as part of the Big East’s New Years’ Eve marathon of games. The Hoyas' offense ranks 22nd in the country in adjusted efficiency.
“I don’t know if we’re good enough on that end yet,” Mack said. “But we did that today and we have to continue to see that type of progress.”
Remy Abell’s 13 points led the Musketeers’ well-balanced offensive effort. Dee Davis added 12 points and four assists, and Matt Stainbrook had 11 points to go with seven rebounds and four assists.
Abell’s points were a nice boost for the Muskies’ offense, but his defense was even more important. He’s become Xavier’s go-to stopper for opponents’ best guard or wing scorers, and on Saturday night that meant guarding senior Bernard Thompson.
Thompson finished with 17 points, but Abell didn’t even allow him to convert a field goal in the first half, as he went into the locker rooms with just two points on a pair of free-throws.
“We knew Thompson was a terrific scorer,” Mack said. “Remy Abell is our best perimeter defender, and Remy had really held him to no points (sic) until he went out in the second half just to get a break. Thompson hit a couple of threes when Remy was out, and as a scorer when you hit a couple you start to feel a little bit better about your confidence level. Kudos to him, but when Remy was in there I thought he was hard to score against.”
The Musketeers used their defense to spark an early 13-2 run that put them ahead by double-digits, 16-6, and forced FGCU head coach Joe Dooley to call a timeout with 12:36 to play in the half.
The lead bounced around between 5-10 points, until Abell and freshman center Sean O’Mara took the Musketeers on an 11-3 starting just inside the 10:00 mark. Abell scored seven points, including a 3-pointer that capped the run, and O’Mara converted two buckets in the post, one of which was assisted by Abell.
Xavier’s lead reached its largest point with 1:31 left in the half on a jumper by Trevon Bluiett.
Stainbrook, who missed practice on Friday due to sickness, only played 10 minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls. That opened the door for O’Mara to see a little more action, and the freshman took advantage by banging aggressively in the post. He had four points, a rebound, a block and a steal in five first half minutes.
“It really shouldn’t just be because Matt’s in foul trouble,” Mack said of O’Mara’s playing time. “We need to start playing Sean some more. The thing I love about Sean is he works every day. He doesn’t take a day off. He’s physical, he’s learning and I think he’s getting better every single day.”
Much like at Auburn, the Musketeers hit a rough patch in the middle of the second half as they watched their 17-point lead turn into a single-digit advantage. The Eagles made three straight field goals and went on an 8-0 run to make it 52-43 at the second media timeout of the half.
That’s as close as it’d get.
Unlike at Auburn, Xavier snapped the skid before the score got too close and went on a run of its own. Stainbrook scored four straight out of the timeout and then Dee Davis made it six with a layup to push the lead back to 15.
The Musketeers clamped down defensively, holding the Eagles to just 35.7 percent shooting from the field for the second half.
Xavier tied with FGCU on the glass, 37-37 in total rebounds, and only had two more offensive boards (11-9).
X gained a major advantage by taking care of the ball. The Musketeers only gave the ball away seven times, while scoring 14 points off of 16 FGCU turnovers.