Co-champions? Nope! No. 3 Xavier wants trophy all to itself
CINCINNATI (AP) — Coach Chris Mack lifted the trophy that’s topped by a silver basketball and realized he’d underestimated its weight. He started to lose his grip, and Xavier’s star player was about to get beaned.
“I almost injured Trevon Bluiett,” Mack said. “I held that thing up. I’m not as strong as I look, and it’s really top-heavy. I saw the silver ball going toward Bluiett’s head.
“Fortunately, my quick cat-like reactions stopped it from happening.”
The third-ranked Musketeers could joke about the few unsettling moments in their Big East championship celebration Wednesday night. Mack wasn’t the only one out of practice. Bluiett also had a challenging time with scissors, hacking at the net several times before finally snipping off a piece.
It had been seven years since they’d cut down a net to celebrate a league championship, and that title came in the Atlantic 10. The Musketeers (26-4, 14-3) had hoped to get one in the Big East soon after they joined the reconfigured league.
They finally did it on their fifth try, clinching at least a share of a title with an 84-74 win over Providence on Wednesday night at the Cintas Center. They lead four-time champion Villanova (26-4, 13-4) by a game and can win the title outright with a victory Saturday at last-place DePaul (11-18, 4-13).
After taking so long to get one of those heavier-than-expected trophies, they want this one all to themselves.
“At the beginning of the year, we didn’t put ‘Big East Co-champions’ as one of our goals,” senior forward Sean O’Mara said.
They celebrated as though they’d won the whole thing on Wednesday night, with confetti and streamers shooting from the rafters as they took turns climbing the stepladder to cut the net. Mack took a selfie with the student-filled court in the background before slicing the last few strands.
As soon as they returned to the locker room, they started talking about the final game. They beat the Blue Demons 77-72 at the Cintas Center on Dec. 30, Xavier’s seventh straight win in the series.
“Once we got back in there, we locked into reality,” O’Mara said. “We’ve got two days to prepare for the next game. There’s plenty more to do.”
Winning the title outright would be especially satisfying. Villanova has beaten the Musketeers in 10 of their 11 games over the last five seasons, including twice this season. The Wildcats are the only team to beat the Musketeers on their home court this season.
“Everybody says the team that’s given us fits is Villanova, and who better to keep it from than them?” Mack said. “They’re a great program. Nobody knows it better than our guys in the locker room. But we want the title. We don’t want to put ‘co-(champions)’ on that trophy.”
Clinching a share of the league title was the biggest moment in what’s already an unprecedented season for Xavier. The Musketeers have the highest ranking in their history and have tied the school record for regular-season wins. They’re only four shy of their overall victory record.
They’re also in position to get the first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in their history with a strong finish.
“There’s still more after that,” point guard Quentin Goodin said, referring to the Big East title.
Their senior-laden roster remembers the disappointment of two years ago, when Xavier was ranked as high as No. 5 and finished second to Villanova in the regular season. The Musketeers lost to Seton Hall in the conference tournament semifinals, and then lost to Wisconsin 66-63 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Like I said to them, we’ve got a lot more to do,” Mack said. “We had a great team a couple years ago and it ended quickly. I don’t want anybody to think by any means we’re satisfied.”