- Considered all but done after losing their star point guard and dropping six straight games in February, Xavier has improbably made a run to the Elite Eight.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The tattered wreckage of another NCAA tournament favorite laid on the floor of No. 11-seeded Xavier's locker room, amid all the cut-off ankle-tape husks, wadded-up towels and navy-blue jerseys. The Musketeers print up their pregame scouting reports on a series of poster-sized white sheets, complete with opposing player headshots, breakdowns of tendencies, and guidelines for how to stop them.
The Musketeers' managers tape the scouting reports to the wall—at the SAP Center before their Sweet 16 game against No. 2-seeded, 7.5-point favorite Arizona, the sheets were on the back wall of a repurposed hockey locker room—and players' tradition after wins is to storm in, tear them down, and then tear them to pieces. Late Thursday night, the faces of the Wildcats' stars could be spotted among the refuse. There was the sheet for Lauri Markkanen, the 7-foot, soon-to-be NBA lottery pick, who finished with just nine points on 1-of-6 long-range shooting, and whom Xavier had targeted as a soft defender. There was the face of potential draft pick Allonzo Trier, the lethal, off-the-dribble scorer whom they wanted to contain with their 2-3 zone, figuring that the ball would stick in his hands more that way. He'd gone on a big, second-half run, scoring 15 straight Arizona points. But he hero-balled four straight possessions against the zone in the final minutes, while Xavier mounted one of this NCAA tournament's most improbable comebacks, from being down 69–61 with 3:44 left, to winning 73–71 in regulation.
"We tore off some good players right there," Xavier head coach Chris Mack said, surveying a scene that had the direct opposite vibe of the way his 2016 season ended, as a No. 2 seed falling to No. 7 Wisconsin in the second round, on a buzzer-beating jumper by Bronson Koenig in St. Louis. Mack called that "the worst locker room I've ever been in." But here, in San Jose, he was looking at a team that was somehow still alive after being left for dead in February. Xavier lost its starting point guard, Edmond Sumner, to a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 29, then lost six straight Big East games to fall to 8–9 in the league, and was on the outside of the bubble in many bracket projections. But the Musketeers scrapped their way into a tourney bid by reaching the Big East tournament semifinals, and then once in the NCAAs, beat No. 6 Maryland and upset No. 3 Florida State in Orlando.
The Musketeers' run looked to be over when they trailed by eight, against title-contender Arizona, with 3:44 left in San Jose. Sumner, wearing a large brace on his left knee and sitting in the stands across from the Musketeers' bench, was thinking to himself, "This is not the position we want to be in." Trier had gone on his scoring surge, Xavier had gone cold, and its win-probability dropped into the sub-10% range.
But Mack told his team not to panic about the deficit: "Don't try to get it all back," he said, "in one or two possessions." Reynardo Bluiett, the father of Musketeers' scoring star Trevon Bluiett, felt like his son still had points left in him. "He had a pep in his step," Reynardo said of the junior guard, "and when I see that, I always bet on Tre'."
Bluiett hit a three to cut Arizona's lead to five with 3:25 left, and senior teammate Malcolm Bernard hit another three with 2:37 left to bring the score to 71–67. Bernard hit two free throws with 2:07 left to cut the lead to two, and with 1:53 on the clock, Bluiett drew a foul on Markkanen, and tied the game at 71–71 with two more free throws.
When Xavier grabbed a defensive rebound off a Dusan Ristic miss with 51 seconds left and the game still tied, Mack called timeout. He had the Koenig shot on his mind. He knew that if he called a set that took 20 seconds to develop, "[Arizona's] gonna hold the ball for the last shot, and that would be a horrible feeling, almost like we were in [the] Wisconsin [game]. So I told those guys, we want 2-for-1."
That entailed running a quick-hitter out of the timeout and getting the ball to Bluiett at the top of the key. He was the guy Arizona expected to shoot, but the play had been designed for someone else: It was a high-low for backup center Sean O'Mara, a utility man and, as assistant coach Luke Murray put it, "an unlikely guy to go to at that point in the game." O'Mara said he "tried to hide [his] smile" while he emerged from the huddle after the set was called. He coyly sealed off his man—Markkanen—as Bluiett caught the ball, and Blueitt hit O'Mara with a perfect high-low pass for a layup, all in 10 seconds' time. They had a two-point lead, and they'd most likely get the ball back at least once before the end of the game.
Xavier once again fell back into its 2-3 zone, which was central to pulling off this upset. "The game plan was to pack it in and play the 2-3 as much as possible," Murray explained. "We wanted to keep them in front of us, make them shoot over the top, and hold them to one shot." Arizona turned to its senior point guard, Kadeem Allen, on the ensuing possession; he drove into the lane, saw a wall of defenders, and threw up an errant runner. O'Mara, whose clutch-ness had limits, was fouled after grabbing the defensive board, and missed the front end of a one-and-one—creating the nightmare scenario Mack wanted to avoid: Arizona controlling the ball for the final shot.
The last possession came down to Trier, once again, gunning to be the hero. It was also what Xavier's 2-3 one had been trying to force all game: contested, long-range jumpers over the top of the D. The Wildcats were 7 of 26 from deep before Trier pulled up for a three at the top of the key, with eight seconds left and freshman point guard Quentin Goodin's hand in his face. They were 7 of 27 after it rimmed out, and Bernard grabbed the rebound and dribbled out the clock.
The Musketeers' defense had held Arizona scoreless for the final 2:52 of the game, a freeze-out that was almost as improbable as the upset itself. Some Xavier players struggled to explain, afterwards, how all of it had happened—getting into the tournament in the first place, or the three upsets, or the rally here in San Jose after their season looked dead. "It's just March Madness," O'Mara said. "Once you're in it, you never know what's going to happen." Like a goofy, junior backup center sealing off a likely top-10 pick in the 2017 NBA draft to win a game on a high-low bucket, or a No. 2 seed that was gunning to reach a Final Four in its home state kicking away what seemed to be an insurmountable lead.
There was one clue, though, amid the chaotic, paper-strewn scene of Xavier's locker room, that they did think all of this might happen. In a corner near the entrance to its showers was a clear-glass jar the team refers to as its "urn," because it contains the ashes of February calendar pages the Musketeers burned, collectively and ceremoniously, in their locker room back in Cincinnati last month as a way to get over their losing streak.
The Musketeers brought the urn with them to Orlando, and before their trip to San Jose, they added something else to its contents: strands of nylon taken from the rims in their campus practice gym. One of the last things Xavier did on Tuesday, before leaving to make a mess of the West Regional, was pull out a ladder and practice cutting down nets.