Coming into Saturday afternoon’s game at Marquette, it seemed Xavier would have needed to shoot well to cruise to a comfortable victory on the road. The Golden Eagles are big, they don’t foul much, and they do a good job of limiting opponents’ 2-point field goal percentage.
However, the Musketeers made just 5-of-22 attempts from 3-point range, and still managed a 74-66 win in a game where they led by double-digits most of the second half.
Xavier was led by Trevon Bluiett's 18 points and senior big man James Farr’s dominant play in the post. Farr finished with 16 points and a career-high 19 rebounds, marking the first time a Musketeer grabbed 19 boards since Travis Taylor did it on March 6, 2013 in an overtime win against No. 16 St. Louis.
Freshman point guard Edmond Sumner also provided a big boost in his first game back since he suffered a concussion 16 days ago at Villanova. He finished with 15 points and five assists in 25 minutes of action.
Marquette came out with a lot of energy, and the Musketeers sputtered initially on the offensive end. Henry Ellenson’s three with just over 14 minutes left in the first half gave the Golden Eagles their largest lead of the game at 15-6.
Out of the under 12 minute media timeout, Mack went with a big lineup of Myles Davis, Remy Abell, Bluiett, Sean O’Mara and Jalen Reynolds. That unit, playing in a 1-3-1 zone, provided the impetus for a 21-0 Xavier run that swung the game in favor of the Musketeers for good.
“They came out with a lot of energy,” Mack said. “We weren’t playing very well offensively, and then I really thought the game turned when we went zone. Anytime a team goes 4-for-25 from the 3-point line and you hold a team to 34 percent field goal percentage, you’re doing something right. Our zone really, really bothered them.”
Bluiett worked Ellenson in isolation for a pull-up jumper, and then hit a step-back jumper over Sandy Cohen on an underneath out of bounds play to spark Xavier’s run. He hit another three a few possessions later, scoring seven of his 18 points in the first half.
Mack was pleased with the way Bluiett responded to the challenge of going up against Ellenson, a future lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, at both ends of the court.
“The majority of the time we were in man, he was guarding a top-5, top-10 pick in the NBA draft,” Mack said. “Ellenson is 6-10, and Tre is 6-6. He did a terrific job on that end of the floor. On the other end, they can’t guard him with one of those big guys. Whether we isolated him or got the ball reversed - he drove the ball at times, too - we really wanted to capitalize on their foot-speed coming into the game.”
Farr scored all 16 of his points in the first half, with 10 of them coming during the 21-0 run.
“If you look up his stats against DePaul, it was like he didn’t play,” Mack said. “He’s really considered one of the best bigs in our conference and maybe the Sixth Man of the Year because for the majority of the year, he’s been coming off the bench. He didn’t necessarily have that right attitude - he was sort of looking at the officials every time he missed a shot against DePaul – but he really came out here with a different mindset today. I saw it in the practices leading up… this is more the James Farr we’ve seen this year - just an incredible effort. It was really hard to get him the ball in the second half, especially when they went to their zone, because they really spaced it. It was tough to get ball reversals and ball movement, because I think our players felt there were too many hands in the passing lanes. We didn’t do a good enough job attacking the middle of the zone, and the times we did we turned it over. We could have gotten them out of it if we converted, but James played really well. It was just difficult to get him the ball offensively in the second half.”
At halftime, the Musketeers led 38-28.
Bluiett scored seven more in the first four minutes of the second half. His free throws with 16:08 to play pushed the Musketeers’ lead to 14, 48-34.
Sumner picked his spots to attack, but he wrecked Marquette’s defense nearly every time he looked to penetrate. He had multiple finishes at the rim, and also went 6-for-11 at the free throw line. His presence provided an extra element that Xavier’s offense was lacking while he was out, and his speed was a major help when the Golden Eagles tried to ratchet up the pressure late.
“The last two days in practice, he’s been the Edmond Sumner that we remember from two weeks ago,” Mack said. “Nothing’s changed. I didn’t see any apprehension going to the rim at all. He got to the rim, and made some things happen. He was a big part of our win today.”
Struggling to matchup with Bluiett, Sumner and Farr, Marquette went to a 2-3 zone on the defensive end, and it gave the Musketeers some problems over the final 10 minutes.
Myles Davis struggled all game with his shot until Marquette built some momentum and cut its deficit to nine with fewer than six minutes to play. He buried a three to push the Musketeers’ cushion back up to 12, 61-49, with 5:34 to play, and then did the same thing a minute later, eliminating any real threat of a comeback by the home team.
“I hope Myles knows how much I appreciate him and his teammates appreciate him, and also understands that we really know what type of player he is when the game’s on the line,” Mack said. “He had missed every shot, and yet we called a set play against the zone, specifically to get him a 3-point look. I think hopefully he understood that’s how much confidence I have in him.”
“He’s a closer for us, for sure.”
Freshman forward Kaiser Gates was a bright spot off the bench again, finishing with five points (2-2 FG) and six rebounds in a career-high 18 minutes. In addition to being active on the glass, he was up to the challenge of defending Ellenson when the Musketeers went man-to-man.
“We felt like he was the one true matchup that we could have on Ellenson,” Mack said. “Tre obviously could do it, but they’re going to try and high-low against a smaller guy. Kaiser can play him on the perimeter and in the post. He did a really good job, and he’s earned the minutes that he’s getting now.”
Once again Xavier showed that it’s tough enough to win on the road without bringing its best offensive performance, and once again the Musketeers’ 1-3-1 zone proved to be a game-changer against a team which presented some matchup problems.
“It’s an unusual defense. It’s not a defense you see very much, and it’s definitely not a defense you see with the personnel that they have," Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. "They’re big and they’re long, and so that defense has caused a lot of people problems.”
Farr responding to Mack’s challenge issued after the DePaul game, and Sumner returning to the lineup without even a hint of rust, were also great signs for a team with a tough eight-day stretch ahead in which it’ll face Georgetown, Seton Hall and Providence.
“Xavier is really good,” Wojciechowski said. “I’ve been on the staff of teams that have won a national championship, I’ve been on the staff of teams that were capable of winning a national championship, Xavier is that level team. They’re two deep at every position. Look, they’re bringing Farr and Sumner off of the bench. Those kids are beasts. Farr is a beast. They’re bringing him off the bench. He’d star on every team in our league. It’s incredible. And then Sumner might be their best pro prospect, a 6-6 point guard. They’re coming off the bench. That’s a damn good team right there. That’s a damn good team.”