NEW YORK – Top-seeded Xavier showed off its depth and rained 3-pointers in the second half to pull away from hometown favorite St. John’s for a dominating 88-60 victory in the Big East Conference quarterfinals Thursday afternoon.
Xavier expected to get points from senior guard Trevon Bluiett, and their leading scorer (19.4 ppg) came through with a game-high 27. But junior forward Kaiser Gates (7.4 ppg) added a surprising 16 points off the bench and provided the spark that helped the Musketeers pull away from a narrow 33-29 halftime lead.
TV cameras caught a scuffle in the handshake line after Basir Ahmed of St. John's popped off to Xavier's Tyrique Jones. There was some pushing and shoving and Xavier coaches quickly herded their players into the locker room.
"I'm not going to throw anybody under the bus," Xavier coach Chris Mack said in the post-game news conference. "Couple of guys didn't want to shake hands. But it was quickly squelched. Let's concentrate and worry about the game."
Xavier (28-4) moves on to the 6:30 p.m. Friday semifinal against Providence, a 72-68 overtime winner over Creighton. Providence beat Xavier 81-72 on Jan. 6 in Rhode Island.
Xavier is in position for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if it can win out here, but that presumably would require a win over Villanova. Xavier has lost nine of 10 Big East games against Villanova, including two this season.
But Gates and Bluiett dismissed any speculation.
"Our focus really isn't on Villanova right now," said Gates.
"If we're a one seed, two seed, we were an 11 seed last year and made it to the Elite Eight, so we know firsthand that it never really matters," Bluiett said.
Gates hit his first five shots - including three 3s - and his first three free throws. Xavier got 28 points off its bench.
The third-ranked Musketeers hit 7 of 11 from three-point range in the second half and outscored the Red Storm 55-31 in the last 20 minutes.
Xavier came into Madison Square Garden as a shaky favorite after the Red Storm (10-17) gave the Musketeers fits in two close losses (by six and five) during the regular season. But St. John’s was its own worst enemy, committing eight first-half turnovers that led to 16 Xavier points.
Xavier ended up with 20 points off turnovers to only two for St. John's. The Muskies committed just seven turnovers.
Xavier quickly pulled away in the second half. Two Gates 3-pointers helped build a 53-40 lead with 12:35 left, and St. John's never got closer.
Karem Kanter added 12 points for Xavier and J.P. Macura and Sean O'Mara had nine apiece.
Bluiett and Naji Marshall were Xavier's top rebounders with seven apiece and Macura added six.
Marvin Clark Jr. led St. John's with 18 points and six rebounds, Shamorie Ponds had 15 points and seven rebounds and Justin Simon had 14 points.