The men’s basketball team dropped both of its home games last week in Big East play against Providence and Marquette.
However, the close contests revealed the competitive drive of the team and could be a harbinger for what has become a tightly contested conference.
Xavier was locked into a close battle with Providence and suffered its first loss to the Friars at Cintas Center since joining the Big East. The Musketeers had multiple chances to tie or take the lead near the game’s end, but the comeback attempt proved unsuccessful.
Xavier once again opted to turn to the tandem of junior Tyrique Jones and graduate transfer Zach Hankins on the court at the same time. Providence’s aggressive defense by the three-point line opened up vulnerabilities in the paint that Xavier capitalized on.
It’s a combination that has been fruitful the last few games, especially for Jones, who was fresh off his career high in points (21) against Villanova last week. Overall, Xavier scored 36 points in the paint as Jones and Hankins matched each other with 12 points apiece.
Xavier’s 10-0 run helped propel an early seven-point lead. Afterward, it struggled to find consistent offense in a seven-minute scoring rut.
The Musketeers utilized a 2-3 zone, which was effective against the Friars.
“We had to stay in a little bit more zone than we traditionally like to do, but it was necessary just because of the foul trouble,” head coach Travis Steele said.
Providence’s eight-minute, 16-2 run put the Musketeers in a seven-point hole, and they trailed by as many points at the half despite mirroring the Friars’ first-half field goal percentage (39 percent). Xavier closed out the half converting just three of its final 13 shots.
The Musketeers turned things around as their sluggish start offensively evaporated –– upping their final field goal percentage to 47 percent. However, 18 turnovers prevented a consistent offense from developing.
“We got to be better, we got to be better. It’s unacceptable,” Steele said. “That’s got to change for us to be good … When we’ve taken care of the ball, we’ve given ourselves opportunities to get good wins in this league.”
Xavier had two separate opportunities to tie the game, but two turnovers and a missed shot on the final possession sealed its fate –– falling just short of a win in a 64-62 defeat.
Xavier –– donning the newly minted blue running man uniforms –– jostled with No. 12 Marquette all the way to the finish but was unable to notch a win in a game that featured five ties and eight lead changes.
The Musketeers, energized by the sellout crowd, got off to a fast shooting start (8 for 11) and took a 22-18 lead about halfway through the first half.
Scruggs was a major factor in helping fuel Xavier’s first-half run, with 12 points while shooting 4 of 8 from the floor and 2 for 3 from distance.
He pitched in just about every category and capped a masterful performance with 19 points accompanied by four rebounds, five assists, a block and three steals.
“I feel like for the whole 40 minutes we played our butts off,” Scruggs said. “That’s all I can ask of from my team … I just think we were more focused.”
Jones recorded a team-high 21 points and completed a double-double with 11 rebounds, three of which were on the offensive glass.
The Musketeers faced a high-octane Marquette offense loaded with long-range shooters –– including the Big East scoring leader Markus Howard, along with Sam and Joey Hauser. The trio combined for 72 of Marquette’s 87 points.
Howard, known to be a robust second-half player, finished with 29 points, and 17 of those came in the second half.
Even with such a strong start, Xavier couldn’t gain an edge because of the Golden Eagles’ penchant for three-pointers. In the first half, they were successful on 7 of 12 shots from beyond the arc.
“I’m proud of the way our guys competed. (They) stayed with it for 40 minutes,” Steele said. “We’re just focused on getting better … We play to win every single game … It’s just sticking with the process.”
A 7-0 run turned the tide the Musketeers’ way after starting the second half tied with Marquette. Xavier took advantage of a 2:19 Marquette scoring drought.
Marquette countered with a mini run of its own, but Xavier still clung to a four-point lead with eight minutes left in the game. However, the shots kept falling for the Golden Eagles as momentum swung their way, 73-69, after a 12-2 run. It marked the first time the Musketeers trailed in the second half.
Xavier sliced the late deficit to three points, but, forced to foul, the Musketeers fell behind by too many to overcome in a single possession.
The Musketeers played with confidence –– commanding the lead for 29:11 throughout the game –– but the persistent three-point barrage by Marquette (56 percent) ultimately foiled their chances at securing a home win against a ranked opponent in an 87-82 loss.
By: Luke Feliciano | Sports Editor