Games like the one No. 10 Xavier won on Wednesday night at St. John’s are never fun for the fans to watch, but they’re an important part of the process for a team with big ambitions.
Great teams are able to overcome bad performances against inferior opponents and find ways to win when it seems like nothing is going right. That’s exactly what the Musketeers did on Wednesday as they escaped Carnesecca Arena with a 74-66 win over St. John’s.
Fortunately for the Musketeers’ sake, they were playing the Big East’s worst team by a long shot. Consider: St. John’s (236th) is ranked just 23 spots ahead of Northern Kentucky (259th) in KenPom’s team rankings. The Red Storm is ranked 313th in the country in offensive efficiency, and 121st in defensive efficiency.
If you had prepared a list of keys for a Xavier win before the game, the Musketeers would have checked very few of those boxes with their performance. They turned the ball over 17 times, which led to a 22-8 advantage for St. John’s in points off turnovers. They were outscored 12-8 in second-chance points. And they also allowed the Johnnies’ freshman sharpshooter Federico Mussini to catch fire from deep and hit five threes. However, they found a way to hang on for an ugly win in the closing moments.
Myles Davis’ season-high 19-point effort was a driving force for the Musketeers. He scored 16 in the second half, including sinking 9-of-9 free throws, as he put the team on his back with the game on the line. He also had four assists and three boards.
"A lot of times after games I'll single out a player and talk about them giving a great effort and talk about them in post game press conferences such as this,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “A lot of times I'll sort of not mention Myles because I've come to expect the way he played down the stretch each and every game. There were so many things going wrong. He's been a point guard over the last couple of games. He's played the two primarily all year. He's trying to get players organized in the right spots. He's able to keep a calm and cool head, get to the rim and hit a floater, come up with a loose ball, get fouled and make his free throws. He was a closer tonight and we don't win this game if it's not Myles and [Trevon Bluiett) down the stretch with their free throw shooting and their ability to make clutch plays when the game was on the line. We had some other guys that looked like they were playing with blindfolds on."
Bluiett added 18 points and hit 9-of-11 free throw attempts.
Xavier was also aided by a technical assessed to Mussini after he slammed the ball down in frustration after Durand Johnson was called for a foul on Bluiett following an offensive rebound with 1:33 to go. Davis made both technical free throws and Bluiett made one of his two attempts at the line to push Xavier’s lead from one to four, 68-64.
"I was upset with myself because I didn't box out the way I wanted so they got the rebound,” Mussini said. “I didn't think about it, I just threw the ball. I immediately asked [the referee] who the technical foul was on because I didn't really expect it. I'm upset at myself because without it we probably would've won this game."
The Musketeers sealed the win on their ensuing possessions, as Davis hit a floater and made a pair of free throws, with a couple of free throws from Bluiett sandwiched in between. On the defensive end, Bluiett and Jalen Reynolds also came up with steals on two of the Red Storm’s final three possessions.
Xavier had to survive that late scare after watching a 12-point advantage slip away when St. John’s went on an 18-7 run starting with six minutes and 30 seconds left in the game. Mussini hit four 3-pointers during the stretch; the fourth of which cut the deficit to one, 65-64, with 2:04 to play. That shot preceded his technical that essentially swung the game back in XU’s favor.
The Musketeers had a similar experience in the first half. They led by as many as 15 with less than nine minutes to play, but St. John’s finished the half on a 16-8 run to make the score 33-26 at intermission. Xavier was held without a field goal for the final three minutes and 40 seconds of the half.
"I thought it was an odd game,” Mack said. “I told our team that I thought early on, despite our lead, we weren't playing very well. Defensively we gave up 12 offensive rebounds in the first half, several of which were in the first six minutes of the half. We've been a much better defensive rebounding team all year so I thought that really set the tone for our team. In the second half, give St. John's credit for coming back. I thought we played poorly."
The victory was No. 148 for Mack, which ties him with Skip Prosser for second place on Xavier’s all-time wins list.
"Skip meant a lot to me. I'm half the coach that Skip [was],” Mack said. “I mean that in all sincerity. His way with people [was] special. Sometimes I get too into the basketball part and he was an unbelievable person, mentor, and coach to his players, and to the other coaches on his staff. He used to say it all the time and I firmly believe it: coaches don't win games, the players win the games."
A 31-point loss at Villanova when your starting point guard was literally knocked out before the first media timeout is forgivable. A loss at St. John’s less than a week later would not have been, especially immediately following a big home win over No. 9 Butler. Aside from the damage the Musketeers’ national ranking would have suffered, the bigger blow would have been adding a glaring blemish on their otherwise sparkling NCAA tournament resume. Even without Sumner playing, a loss to St. John’s could have been a costly one in terms of seeding for X.
The Musketeers had a lot to lose in Queens on Wednesday, but they did just enough to come out on top. Now, they have the opportunity to move up in Monday’s national polls again, after No. 9 Kentucky and No. 8 Providence each suffered losses to unranked teams this week.