Xavier suffered a tough loss Friday night at the hands of Creighton, 75-72, in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Marcus Foster nailed a 3-pointer from deep on the left wing with 6.6 seconds left to lift the Bluejays over the Musketeers. JP Macura got a 30-footer off at the buzzer that would have tied the game but it missed short off the front of the rim.
For Xavier, the sting of the loss hurt on Friday night, but the overall trip to New York City was a success.
With wins over DePaul and Butler, the Musketeers definitively locked up their at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. More importantly, they returned to form, playing together with toughness and a burning competitive spirit. They looked like a team to be reckoned with next week when the tournament gets underway.
They aren't as talented as they were expected to be before the season with Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis. They still have stretches where they really struggle to score and are mostly forced to win by mucking the game up and out-toughing their opponents, but they've taken a major step forward from where they were just 10 days ago when they gave up 95 points at the Cintas Center to Marquette, capping a six-game losing streak.
The Musketeers' improved play isn't just a feel-good narrative for fans to tell themselves ahead of March Madness either. There were noticeable strides made by multiple individuals on the team.
The most notable was Trevon Bluiett. Everyone has bad games. And maybe that's all his effort against Marquette was, but it looked like more than that. It looked like a guy who had checked out or was already focused on something else. Bluiett's intangibles and competitive drive are a big part of what makes him a special player and after that Marquette loss at the Cintas Center there very real reasons for fans to be concerned that those aspects of his game were absent.
Fast forward to the last four games - two against DePaul, Butler, and Creighton - and it's been clear that Bluiett is still very much fighting to keep this season alive. He's averaged 20.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game during that stretch. He struggled with his shot in the first halves of the games against DePaul and Butler but caught fire in the second halves to carry the team to wins in both instances. He was also a warrior on the boards and battled on defense. He provided multiple memorable moments for fans at Madison Square Garden, chief among them being his game-winner in the final seconds against Butler on a tough mid-range shot with two defenders draped on him.
Freshman point guard Quentin Goodin also played his best basketball under the brightest lights. He was not hesitant or scared at all while playing in Madison Square Garden. He had 11 points, four rebounds, four assists, and two steals in 39 minutes against Creighton on Friday, taking advantage of the Bluejays inferior guards. He posted 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including 6-of-6 from 2-point range, with three assists and two boards in the Musketeers' must-win game against DePaul in New York. He's running the team with confidence, he's playing defense at a high level, and he seems to have gotten past his struggles with finishing around the rim.
Aside from a terrible few minutes in the second half of the Butler game where he couldn't stop from turning the ball over, Macura also had a good week in New York City. More so than anyone else on the team, he changed his approach. After taking 17 shots while forcing the issue in the loss to Marquette, he was slightly more passive in New York. Instead of looking to get himself going on offense with tough jumpers and circus shots in the lane, he looked to move the ball more and create for teammates.
He had six assists and two turnovers in the first game of the Big East tournament against DePaul. He passed up a few open 3-point looks early in games, which isn't necessarily a good strategy, but it seemed to let him settle in on offense. He only attempted four shots against Butler, making three of them, and didn't take a single three. Then, against Creighton, he again waited for the game to come to him but quickly caught fire and went 6-of-11 from deep to finish with a team-high 22 points. The takeaway from his performance in The Garden was that he's refocused his efforts to making plays for his teammates while playing as hard as he possibly can as opposed to worrying about needing to get his offense on track for this Xavier team to be able to score.
Sean O'Mara and Malcolm Bernard both stepped up and played their roles admirably for the most part as well. Chris Mack called Thursday night's game against Butler Malcolm's best performance in a Xavier uniform as he finished with a double-double of 12 points and 10 boards while going 3-of-4 from 3-point range and dishing out four assists. He provided the overall effort that XU needs out of him with improved defense, toughness on the boards, and more playmaking off the dribble. O'Mara showed confidence and an offensive skill level that this team has rarely gotten from him since the end of last season when he had some brilliant moments and looked ready to be a starter heading into this year. In three tournament games, he played 19.3 minutes per game and averaged 8.0 points and 3.0 rebounds. With Tyrique Jones' availability being limited the first two nights and RaShid Gaston struggling at times, O'Mara not only gave XU another option but a lift off the bench. His double-pivot move on the baseline against Justin Patton Friday night was as impressive of a move as he's made in his career.
The Musketeers went to New York this week shorthanded and were getting crushed by the national media for their NCAA tournament resume - most notably the fact that they hadn't beat anyone other than DePaul since Feb. 4. They beat DePaul again to ensure they'd make the tournament, beat Butler to end the narrative about them not beating any teams other than DePaul lately, played well against Creighton in an exciting game that had a ton of eyeballs on it, and did it all while proving they can play at a high level for three straight days with their top contributors all playing 38-plus minutes.
Whether they did enough to avoid a play-in game in Dayton remains to be seen. They may need some help from the favorites in smaller conferences. Either way, it was a good week for Team 95.