CINCINNATI -- Xavier’s men’s basketball team replaced a turnover-prone, flat first half with an energized second half to hold off Wake Forest in a 69-65 victory Saturday before a season-high crowd of 10,407 at Cintas Center.
The No. 17 Musketeers looked brilliant in spurts and lethargic in others but came up big when it mattered the most. After nine ties and 11 lead changes, Xavier extended the Demon Deacons’ six-year winless streak in road games against ranked opponents.
The Musketeers also proved their resilience in another Skip Prosser Classic.
“It just shows even when we’re not on top of our game, we can still close games,” Xavier junior Trevon Bluiett said. “I think that’s a good sign and a good feeling for us to know that we’re capable of doing that. We just don’t want to keep putting ourselves in these situations.”
There’s still plenty of polishing to do, but the Musketeers (9-2) persevered despite 15 turnovers and the 18 points the Demon Deacons scored off of them.
Bluiett finished with 20 points and seven rebounds, Sumner added 17 points, RaShid Gaston contributed 14 points and four rebounds and J.P. Macura scored 11 points in the team’s second straight win.
Macura garnered the nickname “microwave” last season for the way he heated up the Musketeers when he checked in as the sixth man. That moniker has gone by the wayside, now that he has graduated to the starting rotation. But a flash of the old sizzle reappeared in the second half.
After scoring just two points before halftime -- and not attempting a three, an abnormality for the junior -- Macura rattled off nine points in the last 20 minutes.
He provided a positive jolt for the Musketeers when he took a charge in the lane against 6-foot-10 Wake Forest sophomore John Collins. Then, when Wake turned to its 2-3 zone, Macura carved it up with his lone 3-pointer of the night.
Macura had some head-scratching moments, like attempting an NBA-range 3-pointer with a defender in his face (he air-balled the shot), but he generated an undercurrent of energy the Musketeers needed. And considering the bench production, that production was a necessity.
So, about those bench struggles
Xavier coach Chris Mack didn’t mince words when addressing Xavier’s bench contributions. He said the bench has to play much better.
“It played very poor, and that’s about as nice as I can put it,” Mack said.
The Musketeers lacked significant support from Tyrique Jones, Quentin Goodin, Kaiser Gates and Sean O’Mara. Gates had two points and four rebounds but missed two 3-pointers and has struggled mentally with his left knee, which was scoped in October to remove particles of cartilage.
“Kaiser’s issue is between the ears. He’s got to know that he didn’t have his leg amputated,” Mack said.
O’Mara played just four minutes, a season low. His time on the court has diminished greatly in the last three games (Colorado, Utah, Wake Forest), which are also when he was replaced by Gaston in the starting lineup. O’Mara missed two shots and turned over the ball twice in his limited time against Wake.
“He’s got to put in the time. He’s got to catch the ball. He’s got to finish around the basket. He’s got to block out. All the things he understands and knows and he’s done before,” Mack said.
“But it goes for all the guys off the bench. I’m not just going to play you because you’re in a Xavier uniform. If you go out there and can’t catch the ball, get shot-blocked, can’t block out, don’t know where you’re supposed to be in ball-screen coverage -- I’m going to pull you out and put somebody in. And our whole team off the bench tonight, every time we’d get a seven, eight-point lead and put those guys in, it would go back to even. It stinks because we’re counting on those guys.”
Gaston goes the distance
Gaston has shown improvement as each game has progressed. Since cracking the starting lineup three games ago, the 6-foot-9 senior has averaged 13 points and 9.7 rebounds.
Gaston’s defense of Collins was so clean that it kept the Wake player off the free-throw line the entire night.
Two examples of Gaston’s skills: He made back-to-back lay-ups and then hit two free throws to vault Xavier ahead in the first half, and late in the game he contested a Collins shot, grabbed the rebound and set up a Sumner lay-up. His bullish play was a difference-maker.
“I thought he did a great job. I thought he made John Collins’ catches a little bit further from the basket,” Mack said. “You’re not going to move RaShid. He might not be as tall as Collins but you’re not going to move him. He’s like a fire hydrant. He’s strong.”
Mack’s message to the Musketeers at halftime was to play with urgency, and that they did. They held the Demon Deacons to 27 second-half points and a 0-for-12 mark from the perimeter.
The latter stat was a product of closing out with their hands high, instead of down, Mack said.
Although Wake Forest was the first opponent to out-rebound Xavier this season (38-37), the Musketeers limited the Demon Deacons to eight second-chance points and showed poise in key situations down the stretch.
“I told our team I was really happy we were in the situation where we had to inbound the ball, get fouled, not dribble when it wasn’t necessary, be able to handle a trap, be composed. We had to inbound the ball several times at the end of the game. It’s what good teams do. And I thought our perimeter guys did a really good job of being strong with the ball, going to the free-throw line,” Mack said.
“(We’ve) got to make a few more than we made, but we ended the game the right away.”