Second Half Comeback Pushes SLU Past XU

Second Half Comeback Pushes SLU Past XU

Xavier will now have to make a statement at the Atlantic-10 Tournament to find their way into the Big Dance, after seeing their hopes of locking up an at-large bid slip through their finger tips Tuesday night in a 70-59 loss to Saint Louis.

After showing never before seen execution and cohesiveness on offense and a stingy 3-2 defense in the first half that led them to a double-digit lead over the Billikens, the Musketeers completely fell apart in the second half, scoring just 20 points and watching SLU completely take control of the game.

Xavier, who has been plagued by flat starts on the road, came out of the gates smoking. The Musketeers acquired a quick 13-4 lead by the 15:00 mark, behind back-to-back threes from Mark Lyons and Dez Wells, plus a 3-point play by Travis Taylor.

The first half wasn't all one-sided though.

Saint Louis made a 9-0 run spanning from the 14:50 mark to Chris Mack's timeout with 13:00 left in the first half. After erasing Xavier's early lead and tying it up at 13-13, the Musketeers would go on another run after a barrage of jump-shots, starting with Lyons' three immediately out of the timeout, and including a Kenny Frease Jumper, a jumper from Wells and Holloway scored his first points of the night on a quick runner. After the 9-3 run, Xavier was back up 22-16 with 10:00 left in the first.

The Musketeers, forced to play a little smaller due to foul trouble, brought Justin Martin in to play the four alongside Andre Walker at the five, and the offense didn't seem to miss a beat. The quick ball-movement by the Muskies led to opportunities for eight different scorers in the first half.

Xavier was led by Dez Wells' 12 points and six boards to go along with Mark Lyons' 10 points on 2-of-3 shooting from the field in the first half. Both of them made a pair of threes.

The Muskies got a solid effort from Andre Walker on both sides of the floor. He rebounded well out of their zone defense, blocked two shots on defense, dished out three assists on offense and was just aggressive enough against Saint Louis' defense to make them pay for not guarding him tightly, as he finished with six first half points.

Xavier kept SLU at a distance, pushing their lead back to double digits with 7:09 to play after a highlight reel, two-handed tip-dunk from Walker made it 28-18. Their lead stuck for a while as a nice pass from Walker set Wells up for a lay-in to make it 32-22 at the 4:30 mark.

Following the final media timeout of the half, the Billikens mounted a 7-1 run sparked by a Kwamain Mitchell 3-point play. A pair of Brian Conklin free-throws cut Xavier's lead to 33-29 just inside the 2:00 mark.

Xavier's standout freshman stepped up big again to end the run and give Xavier some cushion with a three to make it 36-29 on the following possession. The Musketeers picked up three free-throws to close out the half on a 6-0 run to give them a 39-29 lead at the break, thanks to one of the best halves of basketball the Musketeers had played all year.

However, all of the good things that Xavier didi in the first half, were nowhere to be found once adversity hit in the second half.

After Xavier made a free-throw to extend their lead to 40-29 immediately out of halftime, SLU went on a 10-0 run that was capped off by a three from Kwamain Mitchell right before the first media timeout making it 40-39 with 15:51 to play.

Out of the timeout, the Billikens extended that run to 12-0 on a bucket in the post by Conklin, which gave them their first lead 41-40 with 15:06 left. Conklin then extended the lead to 44-40 with a free-throw and a jumper.

The run was finally ended by a Mark Lyons fadeaway jumper with 13:21 to play. The basket marked Xavier's first field goal of the half and ended SLU's run at 15-0.

Xavier only had four turnovers in the first half. They equaled that total in the first three minutes of the second half. Those miscues combined with some easy missed shots around the basket threw Xavier's offensive rhythm off.

Once that happened, Xavier's chemistry on the offensive end completely disappeared, and they returned to much of the same bad habits that have caused their struggles throughout the year.

"I thought early on we missed some looks around the basket and you can't do that on the road," Xavier Head Coach Chris Mack said about the way his team started the second half. "We turned the ball over about the first three or four possessions, but Saint Louis didn't score either. We had an opportunity where we had a few shots around the rim that didn't go in, and then they made a run. They're a good team in their building. Once that happened and the game got close, offensively we got away from what we were doing in the first half. We started taking quick shots, bad threes and dribbled around too much, which is what we weren't doing coming into the game. You can't do that against the Saint Louis defense. It was too late to recover once they got the lead like they did. We just did a poor job in the second half of playing offensively the way we did in the first."

The Billikens turned up the defensive intensity, as they denied Lyons and Holloway, making it hard for Xavier's dynamic back-court to even get the ball, much less get a good look. The result was frustration setting in, as the Musketeers attempted some tough contested shots with virtually no ball movement after the struggles started in the second half. While they focused more attention on Xavier's guards, Saint Louis really didn't guard Andre Walker outside of the lane, and they sagged heavily off of Dez Wells also.

"They deny him," Mack answered when asked what Saint Louis does defensively against Holloway, who only finished with four points and one made field goal. "They make him really work for his catches. They try to extend you out on the floor. If you notice, Andre Walker and Dez Wells weren't guarded that hard, so we tried to take the ball out of Tu's and Mark's hands, and make those guys cutters and screeners and get them coming off screens rather than hanging out with the ball in their hands. You've got to be able to work at doing that. We weren't able to do that consistently enough to get those guys on curls into the lane and be able to make plays off of cuts rather than off the dribble."

The onslaught from the Billikens continued, as six straight points from Conklin made it 46-42 SLU. A three by Mike McCall and a jumper by Dwayne Evans gave SLU a double digit lead at 53-42, and forced a timeout from Chris mack with 9:37 left in the game, and his team in the midst of a 24-3 skid that saw their double-digit halftime lead evaporate and end up on Saint Louis' side in the first 10 minutes of the second half.

"Move the ball and get to the rim, and we were just talking about making sure we kept our poise," Mack said about his message to his team in the timeout after the brutal start to the second half. "You have to be able to get a couple of baskets to go down. You have to be able to convert those types of things on the road to stop that momentum, and we weren't able to do that."

Four straight points from Frease after the timeout cut the deficit to a manageable seven points at 53-46, but frustration boiled over on the Xavier sidelines as Mack picked up a technical following a foul on Wells that sent Dwayne Evans and Mike McCall to the line for four straight free-throws following the under eight minute media timeout, resulting in the Billikens' lead being pushed back up to double-digits, 57-46.

Despite Frease's and Lyons' best efforts, it was too little, too late for Xavier. The sweet shooting big men of SLU kept Xavier's attempts to get back into the game at bay, as Cody Ellis scored seven points in the final six minutes and Conklin scored four to close out the game. The Muskies never got closer than nine points after the technical, and Saint Louis' furious second-half comeback resulted in a big win for the home team in front of a loud, white-out crowd at Chaifetz Arena.

Lyons led Xavier with 19 points. Wells finished with his first career double-double, 13 points and 10 rebounds. Frease had 10 points and six boards, but was limited to just 18 minutes of action because of foul trouble.

For SLU, Conklin torched Xavier once again with 23 points, and Mitchell added 14, on 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc.

Now, Xavier has to face the fact that they let another opportunity to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament slip away, but Coach Mack and company have lo quickly turn their focus to Saturday's senior day match-up with Charlotte and doing what they have to do the rest of the way to still make the tournament.

"It's the biggest game we play all year," Mack said about Charlotte. "We have to be able to go to the Atlantic-10 Tournament on a positive note. We've got to head to the Atlantic-10 Tournament, once the game is played on Saturday, with a positive frame of mind and play our way into the tournament. I don't care what people say around the country, we're going to have an opportunity to play to get into the NCAA Tournament and that's exactly what we're going to try to do."

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