Perfect Gameplan, Clutch Performances Earn Xavier Elite 8 Berth
By: Craig James
What. A. Night.
The Xavier Musketeers are headed to their third Elite 8 appearance in school history after knocking off the Arizona Wildcats 73-71 in a March Madness classic. I know I’ve been saying in a lot it my blogs, but I’ll say it again, for this team to still be playing after how they finished the regular season is downright INCREDIBLE.
I mean, this is the team that was embarrassed by Marquette on senior night. Chris Mack and company knocking off ex-Xavier coach Sean Miller makes this Sweet 16 victory that much sweeter. Arizona was a favorite to win it all in Phoenix, site of this year’s Final Four, with over 12 million brackets having Arizona as the champ. College basketball experts across the country were saying it was Sean Miller’s “time” to head to the Final Four…that was until Arizona ran into the Xavier Musketeers.
Credit to Sean Miller though, after the game he gave major props to Mack and Xavier. Saying he could see this Xavier team winning it all. Miller even made a point to congratulate Bluiett and Macura at mid-court as they were celebrating the upset. Class move by Miller.
Musketeer fans were waiting anxiously for this game to tip off as the start time kept getting pushed back and back. The game eventually tipped off about 10:45 EST. HEY NCAA, let’s clean it up a bit on the start times whattaya say?!
Arizona came firing right out of the gate, scoring the first seven points of the game before the Musketeers were able to answer. To start the game, it felt like Arizona had 1,299,048 offensive rebounds and the Muskies looked like they may be in for a long one. The Musketeers ended up losing the battle on the glass 35-27, but outscored Arizona in the paint 38-32. This is just remarkable against a team like Arizona, considering the size they have.
Trevon Bluiett was red hot in the first half. Scoring 18 of his 25 points in the opening half. That was nice to see from Trevon and was much needed to hang with Arizona, giving the Musketeers confidence heading into the second half. Several Arizona players stated after the game they were frustrated because Trevon was hitting shots right in their face and it was like he didn’t miss. Bluiett’s performances this March have been amazing to witness, and if he comes back next year he very may well have his jersey hanging from the rafters of the Cintas Center one day.
As this game progressed, it showed a lot of similarities to the 2015 matchup. Back and forth the entire game. This year’s Xavier team breaks every huddle with “attack and finish”, a motto they implemented after the heartbreaking tournament loss to Wisconsin a year ago.
Bluiett and Macura have said all week it doesn’t matter if you attack if you don’t finish. By now, everyone in the world has heard about the urn Xavier has been carrying around with them since February. Inside the urn contains the ashes of February. Xavier literally had each player burn the page of February from a calendar. This was Mack’s way of showing the team that what happened in February and that six game losing streak is in the past. Sometimes it’s strange things like this that a team rallies around and it takes them to the next level.
Coming down the stretch of this game it resembled 2015 very much, as Arizona started to pull away, but then the lost their touch. They’re one of the top offensive teams in the country, but not last night, and a lot of credit goes to Xavier’s zone again. At times, the zone looked awful this season, but it has been rolling on all cylinders this March. Allonzo Trier scored 15 straight points for Arizona.
The guy is a beast and it looked like he was going to carry Arizona to the victory, but Malcolm Bernard, Bluiett and Sean O’Mara had a little something to say about that.
Xavier was down eight with 3:45 to play after Arizona hit back to back three’s. It wasn’t looking good for the Muskies at this point, then Bluiett knocked down a three with 3:25 to pull the Musketeers within five. Malcolm Bernard hit a huge corner three to bring the deficit to four. Bernard then made two free throws to go down two.
With 1:53 left Bluiett tied it all up at 71 after he made two free throws. Xavier held Arizona scoreless for the final three minutes of the game.
Arizona players stated they could not get the looks they wanted down the stretch and credited Xavier’s zone for holding them scoreless. The game winning basket came out of a Xavier timeout. Coming out of the time out, everybody in the world assumed the play was drawn up for Trevon Bluiett to win the game. Chris Mack thought otherwise, as the final play was drawn up for none other than Sean O’Mara. O’Mara sealed Lauri Markkanen off on the low post (Markkanen is softer than Charmin in the low post by the way) and Bluiett delivered a beautiful touch pass for an O’Mara to layup.
Side note: looking back, Xavier fans should not have been worried about a guy with the first name Lauri, can’t trust a guy with name Lauri in a big game, that’s just a fact. 7’0 Lauri Markkanen finished with a measly 9 points of 3-9 shooting (yawn). Trier had a good look at a three to win the game, but it rattled out and senior Malcolm Bernard came down with the rebound and dribbled the remaining three seconds of the clock out.
With the win over Arizona, Xavier becomes just the second 11 seed ever to beat a 6 seed, 3 seed and 2 seed to get to the Elite 8. The only other team to do it was the 1986 LSU Tigers who defeated #1 UK that year to head to the Final Four. This is Xavier’s first Elite 8 appearance since 2008. The performances of Trevon Bluiett, Malcolm Bernard and J.P. Macura propelled Xavier past Arizona.
Bluiett finished with 25 points, Bernard contributed 15 points and 6 rebounds and Macura had 14 points and 7 rebounds. One constant this March has been Bluiett, as he has carried this team, but it has been great to see different Musketeers come up huge as well in each tournament victory. Xavier will look to continue their historical run when they go against Gonzaga Saturday night. Gonzaga has lost one game all year and the Musketeers will look to make it two.
Preview of the Elite 8 matchup coming early Saturday. If you have Twitter, vote in our poll below: