Xavier topped Missouri, 78-66, in front of 9,751 fans Tuesday night at the Cintas Center.
The Musketeers showed improvement on both ends of the court compared to their season-opening win over Miami.
JP Macura had another big game off the bench with 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting, and James Farr added a double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds to help the team overcome an off night from Jalen Reynolds.
But the most positive sign for Xavier was the performance of sophomore Trevon Bluiett.
In the first five-plus minutes of the second half, Bluiett exerted himself and imposed his will to help Xavier pull away. He became aggressive on offense. He called for the ball, and he shot it with confidence. He scored 10 of his team-high 18 points during that stretch, and grabbed three rebounds. He finished the game 6-of-12 from the field, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range. He also had seven total rebounds.
"At the end of the first half it was a close ballgame and we knew we weren't really playing to the best of our ability offensively or defensively," Bluiett said. "So we just wanted to come out and win that first four minute war. I got going early and my teammates knew that, and they just wanted to find me the ball."
Bluiett had a handful of big games last year, including a career-high 21-point performance that helped the Musketeers overcome a 50-42 halftime deficit to DePaul at home, so it's not like Tuesday night was a breakout game or even his most impressive effort. But it was different from any of those games last year.
Different because on this year's team there isn't a safety net like Matt Stainbrook to bail the offense out. Different because expectations for Bluiett are no longer tempered due to him "just being a freshman." And most of all, it was different because of the attitude Bluiett displayed on the court.
It didn't require a court side seat to see Bluiett's confidence during the signature stretch in which he took the game over.
The Musketeers held a one-point lead, 37-36, at halftime after playing a choppy final 11 minutes on the offensive end in the first half. The Musketeers had shared the ball and ran decent offense to that point, but shots didn't fall and they couldn't pull away. At one point, they went over seven minutes without a field goal as they missed 13 straight attempts, including four layups. Missouri freshman forward Kevin Puryear's basket 41 seconds into the second half gave his team back the lead, 38-37.
That's when Bluiett flipped the switch, making sure it would be the last time the Tigers led in the game.
He started by grabbing an offensive rebound and drawing a foul to get to the free-throw line for two quick points. On the next possession, he buried a three off a pass from Edmond Sumner. He hit a smooth step-back jumper a few possessions later, and then his three off an assist from Farr with 14:24 left capped a 16-5 Xavier run and put the Musketeers up double-digits, 53-43. Missouri coach Kim Anderson subbed in 6-7 forward D'Angello Allen to guard him, seemingly with the intention of playing physical, but Bluiett countered by punishing Allen off the dribble.
"It's good to see Trevon get going," Mack said. "He can't just be a guy that prides himself on making shots. He's a total mismatch when we play him on the perimeter against a four man. He started driving the ball and he got to the free-throw line. We need him to be a total mismatch so he can put pressure on the rim. I thought he took a huge step forward tonight."
"(The coaches) just tell me that I need to drive the ball a little bit more," Bluiett added. "They say I kind of rely on the jump shot a little bit. With how close (the refs) are calling the fouls now, they just tell me to drive the ball and be more aggressive going to the rim that way."
After Bluiett would score or get fouled on a drive, he'd immediately turn to his teammates and tell them something to the effect of "keep giving me the ball." And when he was running back on defense, he may have even had a word or two for the opponents trying to defend him.
He hit another jumper off an assist from Remy Abell with 9:45 to play to spark an 8-0 run that put the game away.
"I definitely did (feel a lot of confidence),' Bluiett said. "My teammates, after I shot, they would tell me stuff to kind of hype me up and stuff like that, so I just kept going along with it. The rim was wide open for me."
Despite playing alongside other big time talents such as JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State), James Blackmon (Indiana), Trey Lyles (Kentucky), PJ Thompson (Purdue), Caleb Swanigan (Purdue) and others in the Spiece Indy Heat grassroots basketball program; Bluiett always displayed supreme confidence when playing on the summer circuit's biggest stages. Tuesday night he showed that same self-assurance, something that was lacking from his game last year, particularly down the stretch.
This year's Xavier team has a lot of offensive weapons. The Musketeers don't need Bluiett to lead them in scoring every night. But at some point they will face adversity, and possibly as soon as Friday night when they hit the road to take on No. 24 Michigan. Having a go-to scorer to run the offense through when a team is away from home and struggling to score (or the game is on the line in the final possessions) is an advantage. There needs to be someone with enough confidence to step up and demand the ball that the players and the coaches all trust.
Last year, it took a while for the Musketeers to figure out how to use Stainbrook as that guy, and it cost them early games against UTEP and Long Beach State at the Wooden Legacy event in Anaheim, and at Auburn and DePaul. All of those games came down to the final possessions, and X faltered as it cycled through go-to options in the clutch.
If Tuesday night is any indication, that go-to option may have already emerged on Team 94.