Muskies Lose Rebounding Battle, then the Game
The Xavier Musketeers walked back to the locker room, heads hanging low after their fourth loss in five games. Dee Davis put his arm around Tu Holloway, and rubbed his head. The senior was clearly at a loss for words, looking numb after the defeat. This one wasn't any easier to swallow than the others, though it did come against a pretty good team in Gonzaga (11-2). Nonetheless, Xavier (9-4) must find a way to regroup heading into A10 play after the 72-65 defeat.
|Tu Holloway adds an exclamation point after making a basket and getting fouled.[enlarge] Photo by Bob Stevens|
|Kenny Frease makes it difficult for Gonzaga to start their offense.[enlarge] Photo by Bob Stevens|
|Mark Lyons slices through the defense for an easy basket.[enlarge] Photo by Bob Stevens|
"There's no comfort in losing," Kenny Frease said afterwards, "There's nothing good that comes from a loss, in my opinion. We have to get ready. We have to figure it out. We've got conference play coming up, it's a new season and we have got to figure it out."
Coming into the game, Xavier was focused on making sure they didn't get beat down low again, especially after Robert Sacre got the best of Kenny Frease in last year's match up, scoring 22 points. The big seven footer only went for 5 points this time around, but the rest of Gonzaga's big men dominated the boards. The Zags outrebounded Xavier 44-31, as they notched 14 offensive rebounds. Many of those big boards came late in the game, after Gonzaga had burned 30 seconds off the clock and missed a shot. After getting the board, the Bulldogs would kick the ball back out, and hit a clutch shot. It killed potential Xavier runs, as Gonzaga came up with 17 2nd chance points to the Muskies' 10. There's your difference in a game between two evenly matched teams.
Make no mistake, Gonzaga is as tough an opponent as Xavier will face all year. Even back at full strength coming off the suspensions, though clearly not firing on all cylinders, Xavier struggled. They would have struggled had this game been before the Crosstown Shootout. Gonzaga is as big and as athletic a team as Xavier will face all season long. Their defensive ability and shooting prowess matches that of the Muskies. The Zags hit on 8 of 19 three pointers, while Xavier struggled going 3 of 18.
"We went from a team that was in my opinion really hard to score against, difficult to get into your offense, to a team that didn't have it on the defensive end, for a variety of reasons," said Coach Chris Mack, "When you let habits slip for a week and a half, two weeks, you're trying to get things back into place, how they need to be. We need to be able to turn the page, go into conference play. 9-4, that's our record, I make no apologies for that, we've played one heck of a schedule."
The big difference, though, wasn't Sacre, or even Elias Harris, who went for 12 and 6. Instead, it was Sam Dower, who came off the bench with 20 points and 10 rebounds. He hit a pair of big threes and made 7 of the 11 shots he took. He sparked a bench that accounted for 32 points, compared to Xavier's 9.
"Everybody, especially at a school like Gonzaga, who has been really good at basketball over the past however many years, I mean, [Sam Bower's] a division basketball player," Frease said, "Anybody can go off at any night. And he showed what he had tonight."
Xavier's defense hounded guards Kevin Pangos and David Stockton, keeping them to a combined 5 of 14. They also forced 8 turnovers out of the duo, thanks to the pressure of Holloway and Lyons. There was a one minute sequence in the second half where Tu picked the pocket of Stockton (yes, the son of NBA legend John) three times, getting steals and baskets from two of those opportunities.
But no matter how many times Xavier cut the game back to striking distance, Gonzaga had an answer. Holloway and Lyons both went for 15 apiece, but Lyons made just 5 of his 16 shots, and 1 of 7 threes. He also spent a lot of time dribbling in the lane, looking for the easy bucket or kick out. The opportunities never came. Tu Holloway, meanwhile, turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 5 times and only got to the line 3 times. If neither he, nor Lyons, is spectacular, Xavier is in trouble. Kenny Frease went for 12 points, but he had little impact on the game beyond the first half.
"They made clutch shots," Tu Holloway said, "We'd get the clock down to five or six seconds, and they'd get a tough shot, a three, from Pangos or Sam Dower. And those offensive rebounds we needed, we didn't get."
The biggest thing Xavier is missing right now is the defensive intensity and pressure. It was there at times on Saturday night, but not all the time. Clearly, the Musketeers aren't better just by having their three best players all back on the court. The defensive chemistry is gone. Lyons and Holloway are great guards for their defensive skills, not just their offensive prowess. They clearly can impact a game, but Xavier didn't have the defensive stretches like they did against Vanderbilt, Cincinnati, Purdue, and Butler. Without those, they're in trouble. Their great defensive stretch usually coincides with clutch threes and easy buckets in transition. All of those have disappeared from Coach Mack and Xavier's arsenal as of late.
"Here's the thing, like, I'm not going to lose my mind," Mack said. "The season is a lifetime. I've been through adversity, both personally and professionally. We're good. We just lost to a team that a lot of teams around the country won't schedule. We didn't play real well out in Hawaii, everybody knows that, and it's our job to correct that. I told the kids in the locker room, stuff that doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger.
"The only thing I have to worry about is my kids believing in me, and vice versa. And I have confidence in every single one of those guys in there."
Xavier now prepares for their first conference game of the season in Philadelphia, against the La Salle Lancers (10-4) Wednesday night at 6 PM.