CINCINNATI -- After pulling away from Northern Iowa to win the Tire Pros Invitational championship last Sunday in Florida, No. 9 Xavier left no doubt about which team would dominate Saturday’s rematch at Cintas Center.
The Musketeers routed the Panthers 64-42 and achieved a milestone along the way. Northern Iowa was the first Xavier opponent in 34 years to score just 12 first-half points.
The Panthers (3-2) succumbed to a stingy Musketeers defense that held it to 21.1 percent first-half shooting and forced 10 turnovers before the break.
It was the best defensive effort Xavier (6-0) posted all year. The best defensive effort of junior guard J.P. Macura’s career, even.
“We really just locked in, trusted one another that we were going to be in each other’s gaps, and we were talking really well. And I think we really came together,” said Macura, who led all scorers with 18 points.
Point guard Edmond Sumner ended his 0-for-9 streak from the perimeter and chipped in 14 points behind a pair of 3-pointers. Trevon Bluiett and Sean O’Mara added eight points each.
The game launched a home-and-home series that will continue next season in Iowa. It also was scheduling substitute for the Musketeers after a Gavitt Tipoff Games home contest fell through.
Here are three takeaways from the victory:
The return of Gates
Six-foot-eight forward Kaiser Gates made his season debut at the 10:13 mark of the first half. It was a momentous occasion - and one the crowd of 10,028 greeted with applause - as Gates underwent surgery on his left knee a month ago to remove small particles of cartilage.
The sophomore sparked the team at the end of last season and had a productive offseason, particularly in the weight room, so his ability to rejoin the fold was significant. He also added much-needed depth.
It wasn’t exactly a seamless transition for Gates, who picked up back-to-back fouls soon after entering. He finished with three fouls, two rebounds and a block.
“I’m obviously not in game shape right now. I haven’t played with the team. I have to get used to the chemistry again. It’s a work in progress and I’ll be back soon,” said Gates, who has participated in only three team practices.
Chris Mack recognized the difficulty Gates faced in logging his first minutes of the season in Game Six. The coach saw a lot of promise, too.
“I thought the defensive play he made on (Klint) Carlson when he got driven to his strong hand, Kaiser stays right in the play and moves his feet. The kid air balls a 4-foot shot and that’s all because of Kaiser’s ability,” Mack said.
“His three that he shot was right in and out. He rebounded the ball hard. For 11 minutes and for not having practiced for three or four months, he’s in a great position as we move forward.”
How Gates factors into the rotation remains to be seen, but he’s equipped to relieve his frontcourt mates and stretch the floor with long-range shooting. His minutes likely will increase as he finds his bearings.
Growing up, game by game
While Xavier played well as a unit, winning a 26th straight non-conference home game, the contributions of Sumner and Macura stood out. Sumner did a steady job on both ends of the court, starting on offense with seven assists and just one turnover.
The point guard’s maturity and comfort with Xavier’s system was evident in his vocal presence and decision making. Instead of taking on too much and settling for off-balanced shots, he involved his teammates and served as an efficient offensive engineer.
Then, on defense, he was a big reason Northern Iowa standout Jeremy Morgan went scoreless in the first half.
“(Sumner has) grown up a lot,” Mack said. “He really understands so much of what a scorer does is off the ball – setting up cuts, using screens. He was locked in. When you watch a player do what Jeremy Morgan did down in Orlando – 20 points, 4-for-(9) from the 3-point line – you should have great attention to detail, and Edmond did.”
Macura, too, has exhibited a growth arc since last season. The reigning Big East Sixth Man Award winner is no longer the player Xavier needs to come off the bench to provide energy.
Now a member of the starting rotation, Xavier needs Macura to bring that spark from start to finish. His consistency is just as important to the Musketeers, and he validated that Saturday by going 6-for-9 from the field.
Asked if he has the ultimate green light when it comes to shooting, Macura said his coach and teammates trust him.
“I just try to get the best shot possible, whether that’s one more pass for my teammates or an open look for myself,” Macura said.
Mack said Macura and Bluiett have a little extra rope because of their skill off the dribble. As long as they’re playing within the team concepts, they’re encouraged to take good shots.
“I sat our team down and said, ‘Who doesn’t want for those two guys shooting 3-point shots on our team?’ And not one guy raised their hand because I think we have smart players,” Mack said.
Mack thought the difference in the game was Xavier’s defense. Panthers coach Ben Jacobson thought the outcome came down to preparation, and the Musketeers “made it obvious that they did a better job.”
“We had a couple of looks early in the game, we were open a couple of times, and that might have made a difference for a while, but they outplayed us on the glass, they outplayed us in a lot of areas that frankly we showed last week in all three games,” Jacobson said. “They outplayed us in the areas that mattered.”
Although Northern Iowa clipped Xavier 30-29 after halftime, the Musketeers denied the Panthers any semblance of a comeback and maintained their focus despite a substantial lead.
Now the onus is on the Musketeers to shore up that energy in practice and throughout the next game, which is at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday against North Dakota State at Cintas Center.