Russell: Xavier controls glass, Utah in victory

CINCINNATI -- This time there was no second-half letdown.

After squandering leads at Baylor and Colorado, No. 13 Xavier shut the door on a Utah comeback bid in a 65-58 victory Saturday at Cintas Center. Six times the Runnin’ Utes inched within six points in the last 3:17, and six times Xavier pulled away before a crowd of 10,350 and nine NBA scouts.

Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura led the team with 18 points each, and the Musketeers went 10-of-10 from the free-throw line in the last minute to ensure a return to the win column.

“It feels great. It feels amazing, actually,” said guard Malcolm Bernard, who emerged from a mini-slump for eight points. “We definitely needed this moving forward, and I think that this helps our team morale going forward as well.”

Xavier (8-2) avoided its first three-game losing streak since 2013-14 by controlling the glass and limiting turnovers while Utah (6-2) absorbed a second defeat to a Big East opponent. The Utes lost at home to then-No. 18 Butler in November.

Despite being outscored 40-37 in the second half and allowing the Utes to hang around in the last minutes, the Musketeers persevered.

“I keep saying the season’s a process and we’re still growing,” coach Chris Mack said. “And down the stretch we just had to be a smarter team. Maybe we haven’t been in that situation enough. You can close the door on teams in the last couple minutes when you’re up double digits, 8, 10. We’ll get better.”

Feed the Shid

RaShid Gaston doesn’t like to lose. Hates it, in fact. So back-to-back losses before the Utah game didn’t sit well with him.

“After you take two losses back-to-back, I don’t think there’s much to be said,” Gaston said. “Obviously you just go in with the right mentality and approach to practice, and then obviously approaching this game with the right mentality – by any means necessary, you’ve got to get a win. None of our guys like losing. I’m the biggest sore loser probably ever.”

Gaston let his play do the talking as he racked up nine points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone. He finished with 11 points and a career-high 14 rebounds in his third double-double this season, and he was so tenacious that he out-rebounded Utah’s entire team in the early going.

The 6-foot-9 forward’s play was huge for Xavier for several reasons. One, it provided much-needed balance for the second straight game, alleviating pressure on guards to account for the majority of the points. In doing that, Xavier became a more complex and difficult opponent to defend.

Two, he showed exactly why Musketeers coaches sought him after his transfer from Norfolk State.

“If you’re an elite rebounder, you generally get one every 5 ½, 6 minutes that you play. He got one every 3 1/2 minutes today. He was incredible on the glass. He’s a tough kid. Really surprised that he didn’t play well in the beginning of the year,” Mack said.

Gaston has worked his way into the starting rotation for the last two games and stands to be there longer if he continues doing work in the post.

Taking on turnovers

Xavier averaged 15.3 turnovers in three games in the Tire Pros Invitational, 13.5 miscues in its two defeats and 13.2 turnovers in all nine games preceding Utah. With one freshman (Quentin Goodin) playing minutes at point guard and another in the post (Tyrique Jones), mistakes were bound to happen.

Cleaning them up was a point of emphasis, and the Musketeers did just that against the Utes. They finished with eight turnovers, a statistic that ranks second lowest to their tally against North Dakota State (7).

“Even though it felt like we turned over the ball 25 times, to only have eight turnovers is a good thing,” Mack said.

By taking care of the ball, Xavier shut down Utah’s chances to score points off turnovers. The Utes had eight points off turnovers compared to the 19 points the Musketeers wrought from Utah’s 14 errors.

Considering five turnovers came from the main ball handlers – Goodin, Edmond Sumner – the rest of Xavier’s team had just three. That’s a marked growth for the Musketeers, and perhaps a harbinger of things to come against more defensively stringent opponents.

Out-classed on the glass

Prior to tip-off, Utah was ranked first nationally in rebounds per game (47.7) and third in defensive rebounds per game (34.1). Xavier out-rebounded the Utes 33-28 and held them to just 19 defensive boards.

Both stats for Utah were season lows.

Asked how Xavier held the Utes at bay, Gaston said it started with work in practice.

“Obviously just doing drills on a daily basis in practice and just being mentally tough and trying to out-physical our opponent,” Gaston said.

Practice, though, has been different this year when it comes to box-out drills. In past years the staff placed a protective bubble over the rim and allowed players to battle for a ball destined to ricochet off the plastic.

This year, because of diminished roster numbers, coaches have had to be mindful of potential injuries. The bubble is used less.

“We’re doing more pad work with our walk-ons, making sure that our technique is right, making sure the ball bounces before we pursue it so we can learn how to seal. And we have carryover,” Mack said.

“One thing I want to make sure is our team is always as good as it can be on the defensive glass. We’ve got to get better at first-shot defense, but if you don’t give teams second and third shots, it puts a lot of pressure on their first one. Again, I think we’re doing the job there, but it’s only been 10 games.”

Xavier has out-rebounded all 10 of its opponents.

What’s next?

It’s exam week for the Musketeers, which means a brief respite from games. The team hosts Wake Forest in the return of the Skip Prosser Classic, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m.

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