Xavier sends Maryland packing in NCAA tournament

Posted at 11:26 PM, Mar 16, 2017

As coach Chris Mack told Xavier's men's basketball players in their Amway Center locker room late Thursday night, they weren't perfect in a 76-65 NCAA tournament first-round win over Maryland.

They didn't have to be.

What the Musketeers needed was to improve throughout each four-minute war. There was no time to sweat mounting turnovers or the cold start of season scoring leader Trevon Bluiett.

By having short memories and improving along the way, the Musketeers rallied from a halftime deficit, mounted a 14-0 run and clinched a place in a second-round game in Orlando. They'll face No. 3 seed Florida State on Saturday.

On paper, 11th-seeded Xavier (22-13) scored a mild upset by ousting the sixth-seeded Terrapins (24-9).

Mark Turgeon's Terrapins were favored by virtue of their seeding, but they had no marked benefit to that position due to the caliber of their opponent. In fact, many analysts and fans pegged Xavier as the team to beat -- a tribute to its improved play, its defeat of Butler in the Big East Tournament in New York and its immensely difficult schedule.

Mack said the NCAA tournament afforded the Musketeers a certain freedom they lacked when they were striving for an at-large bid. Their six-game skid induced an extreme amount of pressure, and Bracketology experts had them precariously perched on the edge of the bubble.

It took about 20 minutes of game time to shake off nerves and turnovers. Then Xavier assumed control.

Bluiett finished with a team-high 21 points despite 1-for-8 first-half shooting. The streaky start was not unusual for the junior, who averaged just 5.2 points on 28.6 percent shooting in his prior five NCAA tournament appearances.  

Sean O'Mara, on the other hand, had one of the best halves of his career. He went on to tally a career-high 18 points.

The Terps feasted on first-half turnovers, many of which were unforced. Xavier coughed up the ball four times in the last 2:18 alone, and Melo Trimble's steal from Quentin Goodin led to a runout and a go-ahead score with 16 seconds left in the half. 

The Terps retreated to their locker room with a 36-35 edge.

Although Maryland scored the first last six points of the first half and the first four points of the second half, Xavier started to break free of its shackles. Bluiett came off a screen for a 3-pointer and hit a long triple soon after. He started the second half 5-for-5.

"Honestly, I felt like the first half just kind of felt a little sped up. Probably just kind of excited to be out there in tournament time," Bluiett said. "My mentality never wavered. It was just, still be there for my team, make the right plays, and once I just settled down a little bit, my team kept instilling that confidence in me to score the ball. So I just tried to read the defense, and it all turned out well."

Kaiser Gates inflicted damage from the perimeter within Xavier's 14-0 tear to ensure a 61-50 advantage with 9:08 left.

Xavier switched up its defense but found its best success with zone coverage, which kept the Terrapins out of the lane and forced them into contested outside attempts. By sticking to one of their best attributes -- rebounding -- the Musketeers limited the Terps' shots.

Mack said Iowa and Nebraska had found some success by playing zone against Maryland. Xavier followed that script, and it worked.

"We're not playing 11-12 guys. We're generally playing 7-8 guys. So I didn't want Quentin Goodin to be chasing Melo Trimble all over the floor. So zone for us is fairly effective at times," Mack said.

O'Mara was among the players that struggled in the locker room last year after Wisconsin stunned Xavier on a buzzer-beater in the NCAA tournament. His ability to inflict his will and patrol the glass showed his mettle, which makes him pivotal in the next outing too.

"Confidence-wise, it's obviously nice (to play well against Maryland), but in the end, I've kind of had confidence in my teammates and confidence in my coaches, and my coaches have had confidence in me," O'Mara said. 

"Just to be able see it come to light in this game, especially how big it was, was just a great feeling, and hopefully I can keep it rolling for our team."