There may be a No. 11 seed next to the Xavier Musketeers' name in your bracket, but this is no darling Cinderella story.
The steady program that has been to six of the last 10 Sweet 16s stunned the second-seeded Arizona Wildcats on Thursday in San Jose, California, with a 73-71 victory to advance to the Elite Eight. The Wildcats appeared to be in control down the stretch with a 71-64 lead, but the Musketeers finished the game on a 9-0 run, capped by Sean O'Mara's basket with less than a minute remaining.
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Jumpers from Kadeem Allen and Allonzo Trier rimmed out for the Wildcats, and Xavier moved one victory away from its first Final Four in program history.
Gary Parrish of CBS Sports and Evan Daniels of Scout put Xavier's impressive turnaround into context:
ESPN Stats & Info shared the team's place in history:
While O'Mara scored the winning bucket, Trevon Bluiett, Malcolm Bernard and J.P. Macura carried the offense throughout the game:
|Xavier Musketeers' Thursday Leaders|
As for Arizona, head coach Sean Miller will go another year without making his first Final Four. Trier did all he could with 15 straight points for his team during a red-hot stretch in the second half, but 19 points from him and 17 points from Dusan Ristic was not enough to stave off Xavier's final spurt.
The Wildcats also forgot about typically reliable big man Lauri Markkanen (nine points) down the stretch, as Jeff Borzello of ESPN pointed out:
Despite the loss, it looked as if Arizona would steamroll its way to the Elite Eight when it scored the opening seven points, but Bluiett rescued the Musketeers with a scorching start. Xavier's leader made his first seven shots and finished the first half with 18 points.
He was cooking from the field, as Xavier Gameday shared:
However, the Wildcats took a 37-35 lead into the halftime locker room after Rawle Alkins' buzzer-beater.
The Musketeers couldn't keep up on the boards and allowed 11 offensive rebounds by intermission. That helped the Wildcats overcome 39.4 percent shooting from the floor and early foul trouble for Trier and Allen, as Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer noted:
One of Chance Comanche's rebounds ended in impressive fashion:
The pattern of Bluiett against Arizona's interior players changed slightly. The Wildcats continued to pound the paint when Ristic scored their first eight points out of the gate, but other Musketeers such as Bernard and Macura spearheaded a 7-0 run and gave Bluiett much-needed support.
As a result, the No. 11 seed continued to trade leads with the mighty Wildcats even when Bluiett went cold. Xavier's Edmond Sumner—who was lost for the season in late January with a torn ACL—recognized his teammate's importance:
The Musketeers also received a boost from their improved interior defense, as Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated highlighted:
Xavier hung tight throughout but struggled to answer Trier during his 15-point outburst. His deep three to finish his individual run gave the Wildcats the lead, which NCAA March Madness shared:
To the Musketeers' credit, they did not go away even after Arizona went up eight. Between the team defense and the offense of Bluiett, Bernard and Macura, Xavier battled all the way back to tie the game before O'Mara's basket gave it the lead and ultimately the win.
The Musketeers will play the West Region's No. 1 seed, Gonzaga, in Saturday's Elite Eight showdown.
The Bulldogs have never been to the Final Four either, which means one of the two programs will get the proverbial monkey off its back. Gonzaga lost just one game the entire season and beat West Virginia on Thursday despite leading scorer Nigel Williams-Goss going 2-of-10 from the field.
It is fair to expect a bounce-back performance Saturday, which means the Musketeers will be challenged even more against one of the best teams in the nation.
Xavier head coach Chris Mack discussed the comeback, per David Clark of Cincinnati.com: "I'm so proud of our guys, you know, we got down eight, on the West Coast, I just talked to our team about ... hey listen, we don't have to get it all back in a possession or two. We gotta get stops. We gotta take the best available shot."
Bluiett talked about the win, per Clark: "We never split apart when the game went out of our favor. We stayed strong and knew if we followed game plan, we were gonna win."
On the other side, Miller took the blame for the loss, per Shannon Russell of WCPO.com: "I'm equally disappointed in myself. Our team never developed great confidence against the zone."
He also praised the victors, per Russell: "I'll tell you this—Xavier is capable of beating anybody. They're playing great basketball."