Musketeers defeat No. 13 Bluejays to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume
Written BY: Joe Clark, Sports News Editor
With their NCAA Tournament hopes hanging in the balance, Xavier men’s basketball played one of their most complete games of the season to knock off No. 13 Creighton 77-69 on Saturday evening.
The Musketeers looked a little bit different when they took the court at Cintas Center for senior night, as Xavier debuted new royal blue and gold throwback uniforms. Paul Scruggs, Nate Johnson, Bryan Griffin and Jason Carter were all honored before the game as part of the senior night festivities, and the Musketeers made sure to send their seniors out of Cintas with a win.
Despite getting words before the game that graduate transfer Johnson would miss the rest of the season with a leg injury, the Musketeers came out focused on defeating the Bluejays.
Scruggs was the star for Xavier for much of the game, as he had nine of Xavier’s first 15 points en route to 23 points total. The game was tied at 16 when Scruggs made a free throw, freshman Dwon Odom finished in the paint for a basket and freshman C.J. Wilcher hit a three off an assist from sophomore KyKy Tandy to give Xavier a 22-16 lead. While it was Wilcher’s only basket of the game, he earned praise from Head Coach Travis Steele for his work on the defensive side of the ball.
“I’m really, really, really proud of C.J.,” Steele said. “I recognize that we need scoring and shooting on the floor. He stepped up defensively as well against one of the best offenses in the entire country. He was locked in (and) he was ready to go. C.J. is a big X-Factor for our team, in my opinion, and I thought he was really, really good on both ends of the floor tonight.”
Xavier extended their lead to 25-16 on a three-pointer by sophomore Zach Freemantle, who logged another double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
The lead would not last long, as Creighton roared back into the game with a9-0 run to tie the score at 25 with 4:05 left in the first half.
Xavier would regain control in the last four minute stretch of the first half,highlighted by six points from Freemantle, as the Musketeers took a 33-31 lead into the locker room.
Creighton junior Marcus Zegarowski (15 points, 10 assists) opened up the second half by tying the score at 33, but after a Scruggs three-pointer gave Xavier a 36-33 lead, the Musketeers would never look back.
Odom was a big factor for Xavier in the second half, scoring eight of his 12 points and finishing the game with three rebounds and four assists.
With Xavier hanging onto a four point lead and momentum swinging in Creighton’s favor, Odom knocked down a jumper with 3:16 left to extend Xavier’s lead to six.
A three-pointer by senior Mitch Ballock cut Xavier’s lead to three, but Adam Kunkel (12 points) attacked the hoop and scored to give Xavier a five point cushion. Odom then had a steal and scored to give Xavier a 73-66 lead with 1:09 left, which essentially clinched the game.
“They were kind of sagging off a little bit, giving me driving lanes to make plays, create for other people and also finish at the rim, so it was just about trying to stay patient really, and getting our offense flowing,” Odom said about his mentality in the second half.
Defensively, Xavier looked like a different team from the past few games. They played tight, got hands up on shooters and rotated well to avoid giving away easy looks from the perimeter or in the paint.
Odom and Scruggs had two steals apiece and Xavier had 12 points from turnovers. The Musketeers also limited some of Creighton’s best players. Senior Denzel Mahoney was 3-14 and 2-8 from three-point range, while Zegarowski was just 1-5 from the perimeter. Xavier held Creighton to 42.6% from the floor, which is no easy feat given Creighton’s offensive prowess.
The win over Creighton gives Xavier’s NCAA Tournament resume the second big win it needed, alongside the Musketeers win over Oklahoma. With two games left before the Big East Tournament, Xavier will look to carry the positive momentum forward as they hit the road for a battle with Georgetown on Tuesday before wrapping up their regular season in Milwaukee for a rematch with Marquette.