Russell: Xavier snaps skid, UC awaits

Russell: Xavier snaps skid, UC awaits
Posted at 7:54 PM, Jan 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-22 19:55:09-05

CINCINNATI -- After losing three straight games in a stretch that included the departure of Myles Davis, two Edmond Sumner left shoulder ailments and a knee issue that bothered freshman Tyrique Jones, Xavier’s men’s basketball team needed a win in the worst way.

The No. 22 Musketeers got it Sunday by defeating Georgetown 86-75 before 10,343 fans at Cintas Center.

Not only did Xavier likely preserve a place in the Associated Press Top 25 come Monday, but it avoided the program’s first four game skid since 2000. The relief was evident in players and especially coach Chris Mack, who entered his post-game press conference with a resounding statement.

“Damn, it feels good to win,” Mack said. “Questions.”

In a game that featured seven ties and 18 lead changes, the Musketeers (14-5, 4-3 Big East) executed a season sweep of the struggling Hoyas (10-10, 1-6) behind four double-figure scorers.

Trevon Bluiett emerged from a 3-point slump to score 24 points, J.P. Macura added 20 points, Sumner chipped in 14 points with seven assists and seven rebounds, and Malcolm Bernard scored his most points – 12 – in a Xavier uniform.

“You feel an inordinate amount of pressure because you’re used to winning and your schedule doesn’t get easier. I know a lot of people made a lot out of the three opponents that we had but Georgetown’s rolling in here with a lot of talent. A team that we beat on the road, and I’m sure a team that was trying to find itself after the Providence game. And so they come in desperate,” Mack said.

“Winning’s not easy at this level and we never take it for granted. Just really happy that we were able to do what we needed to do – get to the foul line, rebound the ball at a high level and come away with a win.”

Keys to victory

Xavier led by one at the half but piled on 52 points after the break. Certain demons the Musketeers faced in the first half, like a 7:40 field goal drought and two early Bluiett fouls, were no match for an XU defense that maintained its intensity even when its offense sputtered.

Eventually, the offense did flow. Macura started the half with five straight points, Sumner attacked the rim and made free throws and Bluiett scored 18 points after halftime.

Bluiett converted three of six 3-pointers throughout, distancing himself from an 0-for-8 perimeter showing the prior two games. Asked how he was able to instill confidence in a player during a slump, Mack said he reiterated his confidence in Bluiett’s abilities.

“I didn’t say, ‘Hey, start taking less shots. Start driving the ball more.’ We talked a lot about a way to get yourself going when you’re a scorer like he is, is to get some cheap ones. Go offensive rebound. Get lost in the game defensively. And I thought he did that,” Mack said.

Because Georgetown was unable to consistently defend without fouling, the Hoyas sent the Musketeers to the free-throw line 49 times. Xavier made 36 attempts, or 73.5 percent, for its best showing since the Villanova game.

By controlling the glass and out-rebounding Georgetown 35-21, the Musketeers put themselves in position for second-chance points.

Although John Thompson III’s team shredded a 12-point second half deficit with a 9-0 run, Xavier broke open a 58-all game with 9:17 to go and outscored Georgetown 30-17 the rest of the way.

“We’ve been saying, ‘Let’s get back to our winning ways. Let’s get back to doing what we do best.’ So I would definitely say that this feels really good for sure,” Bernard said.

Let’s talk shoes

It’s never ideal when a shoe malfunctions, but that’s what Macura faced in the first half.  He suddenly and fervently pointed to his shoe and Mack took him out.

So what did happen?

“I don’t know exactly what happened on the drive or whatever but my shoe was like flat and I could feel it. Something popped in my shoe, like the air bubble or something. And it just felt really weird. I had to change it up,” Macura said.

As a team manager retreated to the locker room to find spares, Macura waited on the bench, shoeless. He normally has a pair of extras but said there was one complication Sunday.

“My (Kevin Durant shoes) I wore originally today had a blue shoestring. And I took the white shoestring out of my (Kobe shoes) and put them in those. So then when they broke, I didn’t have any Kobes to wear,” Macura said.

Macura ended up lacing up a pair of Bernard’s shoes. Since the two wore the same size and Bernard had no problem sharing, it seemed to be a no-brainer.

Mack was more focused on coaching than shoes so he didn’t know what happened, exactly, with Macura’s kicks. Told that Macura wore Bernard’s shoes, Mack didn’t seem surprised.

“JP might have worn Malcolm’s shoes to start the game, too,” Mack said. “You never know with that guy.”

Questions moving forward

Sumner wore a soft brace to support his shoulder Sunday and at one point appeared to be in pain as he sat at the end of the bench. He still managed to provide a major boost in extended minutes.

“He’s tough as nails. I thought he was really locked in to what I was asking him to do. He got teammates shots. He rebounded the ball. He got in the lane. He played fast, he played with pace,” Mack said. “He’s banged up. He’s playing through it. He’s been a warrior these last couple of weeks through it. He just wants to win.”

Sumner is such a crucial play-maker for Xavier that his health is paramount. A few days between games might be what he needs, but his shoulder - and how it affect his play - is something to watch moving forward.

Xavier’s scoring balance is another focal point. Guards accounted for 74 of the team’s 86 points against Georgetown and there was at least one instance when RaShid Gaston sealed his man and asked for a pass but was not fed the ball.

Georgetown’s length in the post was one reason Gaston, Jones and Sean O’Mara were limited offensively, but guards have carried the scoring load much of the season. Having more balance would make Xavier more difficult to defend.

“Make no mistake – we want to get the ball into both Sean and into RaShid, and they’ve got to do something with it. So it’s something we work on every day,” Mack said. “Some games you’re going to have a little bit more than others.”

What’s next?

Xavier faces No. 20 Cincinnati at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout at Fifth Third Arena. The non-conference finale for both teams will be the stuff of bragging rights.

Xavier has won three straight Shootouts.

“It’s really fun. I’m excited to go over there along with all the other guys on the team,” Macura said. “We really just have to stay poised and stick together and I think we’ll come out on top.”

The Bearcats (17-2, 7-0 American Athletic Conference) have won 10 straight games entering the Shootout.