After battling through a season that was really a comeback story in its own right to reach the Sweet 16, the problem was the same as when the season started for Xavier
on Friday night.
After spotting Baylor an 18-point lead in the first half, the Musketeers' led a furious comeback, and were within three points with just 23 seconds left in the game, but the original deficit was too much in the end, as Baylor held on 75-70 to advance to the Elite Eight.
"Coming into the game, we had talked about not falling behind early, which it plagued us against Notre Dame and Lehigh coming into the Baylor game," Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. "It's easier said than done."
The first 12 minutes of the game were abysmal for Xavier.
After Quincy Miller missed a jumper on the first possession of the game, Baylor wouldn't miss for nearly four minutes. The Bears opened up the game on a 22-4 run, making 10-of-13 shots in the first eight minutes of the game.
While Baylor was busy putting on their shooting clinic, Xavier's offense was in disarray.
The Musketeers turned it over five times during that opening stretch, and made just two out of eight shot attempts.
After a timeout by Coach Mack, and then a media timeout, Xavier slowly started to chip away at the lead. Baylor's 22-4 lead would be their largest of the game, as the Musketeers outscored the Bears 27-14 over the final 12 minutes of the half, behind their senior big man Kenny Frease.
Frease was aggressive in the post, as he has been all tournament, throwing down multiple dunks in the first half, and calling for the ball on every possession. His 12 point effort on 5-of-7 shooting led the way for the Muskies' comeback.
Mark Lyons' free-throw with 40 seconds left made it just a four-point game 33-29, but with 10 seconds left, Pierre Jackson hit a dagger three that pushed Baylor's lead back to seven, 36-29 at the half.
It wasn't Xavier's lack of size that cost them, in fact they led the battle of the boards 16-15 at the half, with seven offensive rebounds. It wasn't Brady Heslip's 3-point shooting either, as he made just one of three from beyond the arc. Xavier overcame a lot of the obstacles that they needed to overcome to win the game, but the early deficit and some impressive plays by Baylor sealed the Musketeers' fate.
"Well, obviously, they came out, and they knocked us back," Mack said. "They put us on our heels early. As I alluded to in my opening statement, when they're that talented, you can only do so much. We wanted to really play off kids that we felt like were drivers. Quincy Acy being one of them, and he sticks a 17-footer. We definitely didn't want Brady Heslip to get any catch-and-shoot threes. He hadn't taken a dribble and scored the entire tournament. What does he do? He goes two chase dribbles to the basket for his first four points. So you got to give credit to Baylor."
After a rough first half in which he went 0-for-5 from the field, Mark Lyons led the charge out of the locker room in the second half. The quick guard went to work against Heslip, and scored six straight points to cut Baylor's lead to six, 44-38, with 14:47 to play.
"I just felt like I was letting my team down," Lyons said about his first half performance. "The first two games, I really didn't play well, like my seniors and our bench really picked us up. I just wanted to be a little bit more aggressive and focused on my shots in the second half so I could put my team, our team in a better position to win the game."
Xavier was able to go blow-for-blow in the second half with the Bears, but unfortunately they could never quite get over the hump. Four straight free-throws from Hollloway made it just a four point game with 13:00 to play, but a 3-pointer by Baylor's Anthony Jones pushed it back to a seven-point lead right after that.
With 1:30 Baylor's lead was at 10, but the Musketeers had one unexpected push left. Trailing by 10, a three by Justin Martin gave Xavier an outside chance to get back into the game. A three from Hollloway with 23 seconds left made it just a 3-point game.
Heslip was able to make all four of his free-throws down the stretch though to seal the Baylor win.
"They are more talented than us. I was honest with my kids," Mack said after the game. "I told them that last night when we went over the scouting report."
"But last time I checked, effort beats talent. We just didn't -- we weren't quite ready from the beginning to handle the athleticism and the talent that they brought. You get down against a team like Baylor, I wasn't surprised that we came back because I think we have very resilient kids. But, again, you get behind the eight ball against a team like Baylor's, it's really tough to overcome an 18-point deficit."
Holloway led the Musketeers with 22 points -- 16 in the second half. Frease had the most impressive performance of the night with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
Quincy Acy scored 20 points and added 15 boards to lead Baylor.
Xavier led Baylor in points in the paint (40-38), points off turnovers (20-11), second-chance points (10-9), bench points (12-8) and the Musketeers made more free-throws than Baylor attempted, but it still wasn't quite enough to pull it out.
In the end though, the lasting impression of this season for Xavier is one of pride, as they were able to turn around a difficult season, and propel themselves into the Sweet 16 and the national spotlight once again.
While Mack said he may have never been in a locker room as "down" as Xavier's after the game, he also pointed to his kid's resilience in spite of the loss.
"I give Baylor a lot of credit and also credit the kids in my locker room for refusing to quit, for being resilient and showing the competitive character that I know they've had all year."
When Xavier pulled off their first two big wins of the season, both comebacks over Purdue and Vanderbilt, the Musketeers talked about needing to take the next step and put a full 40 minutes together.
Xavier's postseason run came to a close Friday night as the Musketeers fell to 3rd-seeded Baylor.