Xavier's defensive effort was strong last Sunday when the Musketeers beat Northern Iowa 67-59 to capture the Tire Pros Invitational championship in Orlando. Saturday afternoon Chris Mack's team took it to another level in the rematch between the two teams.
The Musketeers limited Northern Iowa to 32.6 percent shooting, including 6-of-18 from 3-point range, as they rolled to a 64-42 win at the Cintas Center. According to Xavier Sports Information Director Tom Eiser, UNI's first half total of 12 points is the lowest by an XU opponent since before the shot clock was introduced in the 1985-86 season.
"Good teams just lock in on the challenge and the moment, and I know our team did that today," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "We didn't put any excuses in our pockets. We went out there and defended at a really high level, as good as I can remember."
Xavier was led by JP Macura's 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range, to go with four rebounds, three assists, three steals, and three turnovers. Edmond Sumner also had an excellent day, finishing with 14 points (6-10 FG, 2-4 3PT), seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and one turnover.
"I thought (Edmond) played the best floor game by far that he's played all year," Mack said. "It's not about looking at the statistics and saying, 'hey, you had more assists than turnovers.' That's all a function of the process. For him, it's just, 'hey, run your team and be a quarterback.' I thought he really did that. I could hear his voice yelling to get us in the spread offense. He generated shots for guys when maybe earlier on he would have taken an off-balance shot. If he plays that way, he's so hard to keep out of the lane. It makes us very difficult to guard."
In the first game between the two teams, Northern Iowa didn't find much success with its halfcourt offense. The Panthers weren't able to create enough penetration against XU's length to make the Musketeers help defensively, freeing their shooters on the perimeter.
That was again the case Saturday, but X also cleaned up some of its smaller mistakes from the first matchup between the two teams while ramping up its intensity a notch or two.
Most of Northern Iowa's best looks came on defensive breakdowns in transition or loose ball situations during the first game. On Saturday, there were no such issues for XU. UNI didn't score a single fast break point and the Musketeers were excellent at focusing and recovering when they had to scramble.
"We didn't really make any adjustments, we just did what we wanted to do better," Mack said. "I thought our ability to disrupt them on their ballscreens and then cover their other three (players) off the ball prompted them to really not get a good look. We were really on it defensively. I'm sure they missed a couple open ones but the one time we didn't matchup in transition during the first half was the only one they hit before halftime. It really shows how locked in our team was today."
Over the first 10 minutes of the game, Xavier held UNI to just 2-of-10 shooting, including 1-of-5 from 3-point range, with six turnovers as the Musketeers built a 20-5 lead. It didn't get much better from there for the Panthers as they finished the first half just 4-of-19 from the field (21.1%), 1-of-9 from three (11.1%), and trailing 35-12. XU limited UNI to 0.41 points per possession before intermission.
On the other end of the court, Xavier was more fluid offensively. Part of that was due to the Musketeers making a few more shots, they were 8-for-22 from three, but they were also more patient offensively, often rotating through their offense before settling for a quick jumper. They also made a more concerted effort to get the ball inside.
"Offensively, I thought we played the right way," Mack said. "We didn't score a lot of points but Northern Iowa has a lot to do with that in terms of their style of play. I thought we shared the ball. We played longer into the shot clock at times and generated good shots. It's hard to stretch them out. They just stand in the paint."
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Musketeers' performance was that their effort never wavered even after building a massive lead so early in the game.
"You just have that feeling as a coach that Northern Iowa is not a garbage team," Mack said. "They're a good team. You have to keep your foot on the accelerator knowing that some of those contested looks from the first half are probably going to go in because they're going to be ticked off and play better. You don't want the air to go out of the building as people start concentrating on the Ohio State/Michigan score."
Shooting percentages caught up a little bit - the Panthers hit 5-of-9 (55.6%) attempts from three in the second half - but XU continued to play with the same type of intensity that they played with during the first half. The closest UNI got was within 15 points of the Musketeers at the 7:30 mark of the second half. XU responded by holding the Panthers scoreless for over four minutes while going on a 7-0 run.
Xavier pulled down four offensive rebounds in the first four minutes of the second half and finished with 15 offensive boards for the game. After two possessions where the Musketeers worked particularly hard on the glass for multiple shots but failed to score, Mack could be seen on the sidelines clapping and cheering loudly for his players' hustle.
"I was really proud of how locked in we were, but the challenge for us is to be that way tomorrow, be that way Monday, and be ready for North Dakota State on Tuesday," Mack said. "That's what great teams do. They're not up-and-down."
Sophomore forward Kaiser Gates made his season debut just before the 10-minute mark of the first half. He had a rough few possessions to start, getting beat on a bad closeout and then fouling twice. He immediately came out of the game after two-plus minutes of action. He returned in the second half and looked fine while getting a bit more time on the floor. He was 0-for-1 from the field with two rebounds, a block, and three fouls in 11 minutes.
"It's a hard ask for him," Mack said. "He hasn't practiced but three days leading up to this. He had a phenomenal summer which was the tough part for us and for him because I thought he was really poised to go at the beginning of the year and through a couple setbacks, no fault of his own, he's only practiced three days. He's in a great position as we move forward."
It wasn't a perfect game by the Musketeers. They still aren't shooting the ball as well as they're capable of, particularly Bluiett, who was 3-of-9 from the field and 2-of-6 from 3-point range with eight points and eight rebounds, but they brought the perfect amount of effort on the defensive end Saturday afternoon.
"We'll get better offensively," Mack said. "I don't worry about offense, I never do. We'll figure out ways to score. We're going to have those nights where we don't and if we can defend at this level we're going to be in most every game we play."