Xavier struggled its way through an 83-82 overtime win over Missouri in the first round of the Tire Pros Invitational. It was an ugly performance by the Musketeers but not one that should cause concern for their fanbase.
Consider: Xavier made just 2-of-22 attempts from 3-point range. Trevon Bluiett was in foul trouble, missed all six of his 3-point attempts, and had three turnovers with only one assist. Edmond Sumner played poorly in just about every aspect, despite tying for the team lead in scoring. And the team didn't make a single shot outside of five feet after halftime. Avoiding what would have been a terrible loss isn't just fortunate for the Musketeers, it's damn near a miracle and required a strong effort in some other key areas besides shooting.
“I give Missouri a lot of credit," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "I don’t think we played very well. I don’t think defensively or offensively we played very fluid the entire game. Consequently, we were in a one-possession game and it could have gone either way. We have to hurry up and grow up from this. Again, it beats losing."
Xavier's defense held Missouri to .953 points per possession, a respectable number. The play of the big men - which is probably the top issue concerning this Xavier team at the moment - ranged from good to very good. The Musketeers gained an 18-8 advantage in second chance points by out-rebounding Missouri 19-9 on the offensive glass. They also blocked nine shots in the game, a mark achieved only twice over the last two years by X, both times against Butler.
In other words, the Musketeers' struggles on Thursday came down to the fact that their best players weren't good on offense and no one could make shots from the outside. That's just not a reasonable concern to have about this team going forward. This team may have another shooting game or two similar to this all year, and they've already found a way to win the first one while avoiding a bad loss.
“We took some hurried shots," Mack said. "I told these guys in the locker room our offense has to be more than just making shots. We’ve got to be able to generate better shots for every guy on the team, whether it’s inside guys or perimeter players. We didn’t have a very good feel for it."
Sumner was saddled to the bench with two fouls after picking up a charge with more than 10 minutes to play in the first half. Even after getting thrown off track early, he was able to play the majority of the second half and had multiple opportunities to help his team seal the win down the stretch. He faltered up until the point that he made the game-winning free throw with 0.3 seconds left in overtime. He had missed five straight from the charity stripe leading up to that one.
The play was set up by a heads-up timeout called by JP Macura with 1.8 seconds left after Malcolm Bernard blocked Missouri point guard Terrence Phillips' 3-point attempt. Mack drew up a give-and-go, touch-pass side out of bounds play near midcourt between Macura and Sumner, who was the inbounder, that ended up drawing a foul on Phillips.
“There were a few seconds left so I decided to call a timeout because I didn’t want to just fire up a half-court shot," Macura said. "I thought we’d have better chances of making a shot if we got a timeout.”
In addition to the missed free throws, Sumner went 0-for-3 from the field in the final six minutes of regulation, including a missed stepback 3-pointer on a poor decision to close the final possession. He also had a turnover with two minutes to play in overtime. He finished with 19 points on 7-of-19 shooting from the field, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range, and 5-of-12 from the free-throw line, to go with six rebounds, one assist, and four turnovers in 41 minutes.
Missouri's young backcourt of freshman Frankie Hughes and Phillips, a sophomore, came out gunning for the Tigers, scoring 11 and 10 points respectively to lead their team to a 38-36 halftime lead. The Tigers led by as many as 10 before intermission.
Bluiett picked up two fouls within the first minute of the second half, sending him to the bench until the under eight-minute media timeout. And even after that, he played sparingly as Mack worked the offensive/defensive substitutions until the closing minutes. He finished with 13 points (5-16 FG, 0-6 3PT, 3-4 FT), three rebounds, an assist, and three turnovers in 29 minutes.
The score was tied 15 times and the lead changed hands six times overall, including 10 ties and three lead changes in the second half and overtime.
Bernard showed his defensive versatility against the Tigers as he took on the responsibility of guarding the 5-foot-11 Phillips down the stretch after he had given the Musketeers problems in the first half. Phillips finished with 21 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, but Bernard was able to keep him in check during the closing minutes. His steal and assist to Gaston for a two-handed slam in transition gave Xavier its first lead in the second half with 5:09 to play, 63-61. The Musketeers would like to see Bernard give them a bigger offensive boost on nights like this when the big three don't have it rolling, but he was solid with five points (2-5 FG, 1-3 3PT), five rebounds, two assists, and one turnover in 32 minutes.
Gaston's play was the most encouraging sign for the Musketeers on an otherwise forgettable night. He looked like the player Mack had been hyping him up to be in the preseason while playing solid at both ends and finishing with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocked shots in 27 minutes before fouling out.
O'Mara was also solid, pitching in 13 points (5-7 FG, 3-4 FT), five boards, a block, and a steal in 25 minutes. Freshman Tyrique Jones needed only nine minutes to foul out in this one but was disruptive around the rim once again when he was in there, grabbing four boards, blocking a shot, and making an assist in his brief time on the court.
Thursday's win certainly isn't a reason to celebrate for the Musketeers, but avoiding a loss to Missouri when the strength of their team failed them away from the Cintas Center sure beats the alternative.