It finally happened.
Xavier had a “we just didn’t come out ready to play” game on Tuesday night.
The Musketeers hadn’t played away from the Cintas Center in 23 days, so the slow offensive start on the road at Wake Forest was predictable. However, it was compounded by a lackadaisical effort on defense and the boards, which led to them trailing by as many as 18 in the first half.
In the second half, the Musketeers lived up to their No. 6 national ranking by erasing a 15-point halftime lead before the second media timeout as they opened the half on a 21-4 run over the first six-plus minutes. Sean O’Mara’s turnaround hook shot with 14:22 to play tied the game at 49 all, and then Edmond Sumner’s hesitation move and layup on the following possession gave the Musketeers their first lead.
Xavier went on to win, 78-70.
Sumner led the way with 21 points on 6-of-13 shooting to go with nine rebounds, two steals and two assists, and Trevon Bluiett added 17 points (6-18 FG) and nine rebounds. Those two were the offensive catalysts for the furious comeback to start the second half. Also, James Farr chipped in with 12 points and nine rebounds, rounding out the Xavier scorers in double figures.
"Xavier dominated the second half,” Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said. “We didn’t have any answers for them in the second half. We came out in the first half, and we did some really good things. But probably more importantly, we did a much better job of guarding in the first half than we did in the second half. That’s not to take anything away from Xavier. They’re one of the best teams in the country for a reason. They’re tough, they’re hard-nosed and they compete. Chris [Mack] has done a remarkable job in scheduling the games that he’s scheduling and putting those guys in the position to be successful. They’re going to be one of the better teams throughout the course of the year, when they get into conference season, because they’ve been battle-tested and they’re tough."
"I was a little surprised by how we came out tonight,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “And that's where I give Wake Forest credit, they were ready to play and our guys got set on their heels, but our guys came out in the second half."
After a rough first half that saw him go 1-for-8 from the field, Bluiett remained extremely confident to start the second half and scored 10 points in the first five minutes. His mid-range jumper with 14:55 to play brought Xavier back within one, 46-45.
Sumner scored 13 of his 21 in the second half, and gave the Musketeers two momentum-swinging plays with a thunder dunk in transition to cut X’s deficit to two with 15:52 to play, and a nasty step-back three in the corner with 13:16 on the clock to give his team a 3-point lead, 52-49. He also made his presence felt on defense and on the glass.
On the defensive end, the entire team turned up the intensity in the second half. Wake Forest’s first field goal didn’t come until the 12:47 mark on a John Collins jumper after Xavier had already taken the lead.
The Musketeers led by as many as nine with 6:33 to play, but the Deacons had it down to one at the final media timeout, 68-67. Xavier held them scoreless for three minutes and went on a 7-0 run out of the timeout to put the game away.
"We didn't play very well [in the first half] and Wake Forest had a lot to do with that; their size, their length, their readiness to play, their ability to shoot,” Mack said. “We turned the ball over uncharacteristically way too much. But in the second half, we responded. We didn't turn the ball over nearly as much. I saw a toughness in our locker room (at halftime); a little disappointment in themselves, and it was good to see us respond in the second half.”
Xavier missed on two keys of the scouting report against Wake Forest in the first 20 minutes of action, allowing Bryant Crawford and Mitchell Wilbekin to get free for five threes. Crawford finished with a team-high 16 points, 13 of which came before intermission.
After allowing the Deacons to score 1.10 points per possession and shoot 48.3 percent from the field in the first half, the Musketeers held them to just .675 points per possession and 20.7 percent shooting in the second.
Part of the poor defensive numbers in the first half were related to Xavier’s inability to keep the ball out of the lane on penetration, and some of them were due to the uncharacteristic number of live-ball miscues on offense Mack mentioned that led to 12 points off turnovers for Wake Forest.
The Musketeers cleaned it up on both ends in the second half, and showed off their well-rounded attack that has led them to a school record 12-0 start.
"You certainly don’t set out to go undefeated,” Mack said. “We take our challenges one at a time. The growth of this team from last year is amazing. It’s mostly seen in practice. If you turn it on and off--you practice hard one day then you’re not who you’re supposed to be the next day--you can’t show up on game night."
Along with a top 10 national ranking comes a significant target. As long as Xavier has that single-digit number next to its name, the Musketeers are going to get their opponent's best shot.
At least on Tuesday night, Team 94 proved to be up for the challenge.