By Ken Cross
The Xavier Musketeers’ 1-3-1 zone defense was as sharp as the namesake’s sword in the second half of their 78-70 come-from-behind win at Wake Forest. It knifed a sizzling Demon Deacons’ offense that shot 48.3 percent from the floor in the first half in amassing a 43-28 advantage over the No. 6 Musketeers after 20 minutes. The last half was another matter as Wake Forest only made six shots and shot 20.7 percent from the floor.
“We started playing it a little last year because our bigs were a little like Wake’s,” Mack explained, “We were a little bit slow-footed but so long. We had so much success with it deep in the season a year ago, so we decided to stay with it. We try to use it as a curve ball. When teams turn the ball over and are not necessarily making shots, we will stay with it.”
The defense served as a rallying point as Xavier made it’s first five shots from the floor in the second in cutting the Demon Deacons’ lead to 43-39 in the first 3:14. Xavier’s four-guard attack of Edmond Sumner, Trevon Bluiett, Myles Davis, and Remy Abell, deflected basketballs, passed ahead on the fast break, swung the ball on the perimeter to find the open three-point shooters.
“In the second half, our kids responded and we did not turn the ball over nearly as much especially to get ourselves back in the game,” Mack said, “I saw a toughness in our locker room, a little disappointment in themselves, and it was great to see them respond in the second half. ”
Xavier’s Sumner and Blueiett were an uncontrollable tandem in the second half against the Demon Deacons in the second half. They finished a combined 12-of-31 and were 9-of-17 from the floor in the second half, combining for 20 of their 31 points in that second 20 minutes. They combined for 11 of Xavier’s first 15 points to start the second half as Sumner’s slam at 15:52 capped a 15-2 run and put the Demon Deacons on their heels.
It was a major departure from the first half where the Musketeers came out flat and trailed 36-18 as Cornelius Hudson made a lay up off a steal with 3:45 left in the first half.
“I love this area but after the first half, I was considering never coming back,” quipped Musketeers coach Chris Mack, who spent three years on the Wake Forest bench as Prosser’s assistant, “We didn’t play very well, their size bothered us, and we turned the ball over, uncharacteristically, way too much. Their size, length, and readiness to play their ability to shoot if the first half.”
Mack was especially concerned about the 12 Demon Deacons points off the seven Xavier turnovers and then seven more off the fast break. That yielded nearly have of the Wake Forest out put in the first half.
Xavier couldn’t score in the first half against a Deacons’ 2-3 matchup that was very active and seemed to bother the perimeter shooter and cut down on the driving angles of Jalen Reynolds, who still had a pair of one-hand slams as Xavier shot only 29.7 percent in the first half.
“Our offense was severely killing our defense because we don’t have the opportunity to defend if we are turning the ball over and if we are forcing shots,” Mack noted about the Musketeers’ carelessness with the ball early, “Those two components were killing us defensively. We never had an opportunity to set up our defense. We were always trying to fly back in a two-on-three situation.”
Sumner, a freshman from Detroit, gave the Musketeers their first lead of the night at 49-47 on a layup and then nailed a three 56 seconds later as Xavier went up for good at 52-49 with 12:47 remaining.
The workman ship of this team showed late in the game and it is a definition of why Xavier is an early pick of many to make it to the Final Four. The offensive glass was huge as they scored 14 points off of 14 offensive rebounds. At one point Sumner shot a three missed, followed the shot tap it to a teammate who missed inside and then followed. That defined the Musketeers, who took “all for one” to another level Tuesday night.
“We wanted it badly during that time,” noted Mack, “It was as if our kids refuse to loose. We miss a shot and we are going to get that. You don’t really coach that.”
“Every guy took it upon himself to put the ball in front of him,” Mack said of a second half defensive performance that saw Xavier hold Wake Forest to “He (Sumner) is super talented We try to use his foot speed on their big guys, put them in flat screen situations. He still gets a little out of control. But I give him that freedom because there are times he gets into the lane anytime he wants and spray out a three or get a layup.”