CINCINNATI -- Xavier students braved a strong wind for hours before they went in and packed one end of the Cintas Center for Sunday’s game against 17th-ranked Villanova, waiting and hoping for their opportunity in the closing moments.
And they got it.
“Overrated! Overrated!” they chanted.
For the third time in their last three games, the Wildcats went on the road and lost, but this might have been the ugliest one of all. After taking their last lead midway through the second half, they didn’t score again for 9 minutes, 9 seconds, and the Musketeers put up 17 consecutive points to take control in a 66-54 victory. This is the Wildcats’ first 3-game losing streak since January 2013.
This nightmare saw the Cats (20-8, 11-4 Big East) miss 11 straight shots and turn the ball over twice after Saddiq Bey dunked home the follow of Phil Booth’s missed three-point try with 12:46 left in the second half. To make matters worse, they weren’t getting stops at the other end as Xavier (15-13, 7-8) scored on seven of nine possessions.
And for Jay Wright, that was the story of the game.
“They shut us down,” the Villanova coach said. “We couldn’t make a shot and they went on a run, hit some big threes, got big offensive rebounds. We just didn’t have the speed and the athleticism to go after them and speed it up. They handled the pressure pretty well. So I just credit them on that big second-half run. That was the backbreaker.
“We were just not executing the way we want to and we were not getting any easy baskets off our defense. So it just makes every shot monumental.”
After pulling down seven offensive rebounds in the first half, the Wildcats managed just four in the second even though a lot of missed shots were there for the grabbing. The Cats connected on just 8 for 29 attempts from the field in the second half, 4 of 18 from three.
Eric Paschall scored 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting with three threes. Booth, who had 14 points, went 1 of 8 in the final 20 minutes. The Wildcats did not attempt a single free throw until 2:12 remained in the game.
The more the visitors missed, the more confident Xavier became. The Musketeers, who shot 53.8 percent in the second half, sank 6 of 9 shots during their run, with Naji Marshall accounting for seven points and Paul Scruggs five. Quentin Goodin’s layup ended the spurt, giving Xavier a 58-44 lead with 6:26 to play.
The Wildcats weren’t out of it. In fact, they held the Musketeers scoreless for the next 3:15 but they still couldn’t make a shot.
“We just talked to our teammates,” Paschall said. “We have to lead and not let them get down, say ‘attitude’ during that whole time and keep playing together.”
The Cats finally broke their dry spell at the 3:37 mark when Joe Cremo hit a layup. They did get to within nine with 1:06 to play when Paschall sank two free throws, but Tyrique Jones answered with a dunk at the other end and it was celebration time in the student section.
It doesn’t seem like a good time for the Wildcats to be slumping with March quickly approaching and first-place Marquette coming into Finneran Pavilion on Wednesday night. But Wright knows how important the next couple of days will be.
“It’s a lot of little things that show up in a nine-minute stretch,” he said. “You don’t score but maybe you get a stop defensively that’ll get you an easy basket or get you to the foul line … things we’re not doing that breaks that nine-minute stretch that could be the difference in winning and losing. We’ve just got to keep working on those little things.”
Villanova put in a good effort on the boards in the first half, outrebounding Xavier by 18-12 to take a 30-27 lead. The Wildcats grabbed seven rebounds off the offensive boards but managed just two second-chance points. They shot 40 percent overall from the field and 33 percent (six of 18) from distance.
However, three of their starters -- Booth, Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree -- each picked up a pair of fouls in the first half.
The Wildcats’ first four baskets of the second half were all three-pointers, but they were not coming up with the stops defensively. Xavier made seven of its first 12 shots, and tied the score at 44 on Elias Harden’s three-pointer from the left corner with 11:49 to play. It was the first deadlock in the game since 7-7.
Harden’s trey began the 17-0 Xavier run.
The Wildcats got off to a fine start defensively, limiting the Musketeers to one basket in six attempts in the first 5:20. From a 7-7 tie, they went on a 13-4 run over a six-minute stretch helped by five points from Jahvon Quinerly and one three-pointer each from Paschall and Gillespie to take a 20-11 lead with 7:40 to play.
Xavier rallied by sinking four of five shots as it chipped into the deficit, which was narrowed to 25-23 on two free throws by Zach Hankins with 2:55 left, and to 28-27 on Marshall’s pair of free throws at the 1:49 mark. However, the Musketeers went the rest of the way without scoring and Booth’s layup off an inbounds lob from Bey put the visitors up three at the break.