Xavier’s offensive firepower was impressive, but its defense is what powered the Musketeers to the semi-finals of the Big East Tournament.
No. 3 Xavier deployed a suffocating zone defense and an electric transition offense to capture an 88-60 win over St. John’s in the second round of the Big East Tournament Thursday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Xavier (28-4, 16-3) faces the winner of No. 4 seed Creighton (19-12) and No. 5 seed Providence (21-10) in the semi-finals Friday night at 6:30 p.m.
The Musketeers have reached the Big East Tournament semifinals every year since joining the conference in 2013.
Xavier coach Chris Mack praised the Musketeer’s defense for shutting down a St. John’s (16-17, 4-14) offense that put up 88 points Wednesday night against Georgetown.
“In the first and second half we defended our tails off,” Mack said. “I thought we were really locked in.”
Senior guard Trevon Bluiett led the way for the Musketeers on offense, dropping 27 points and pulling down seven boards.
Xavier continued its success at fending off a St. John’s team that had won four of its last five games in New York City, including a victory over then-No. 4 Duke on Feb. 3.
It’s the third-straight time the Musketeers have beaten St. John’s this season; an 88-82 win on Jan. 17 and a 73-68 victory on Jan. 30, where St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds dropped 31 on the Musketeers.
Ponds, who scored 26 points in the Johnnies’ 88-77 victory over Georgetown Wednesday, was held to just four points in the first half and 15 points on the night, going 0-for-7 from long range.
“We made him use the ball screen, rather than reject it,” Mack said. “Our guys on the backside did a really good job of limiting his options.”
The Musketeers held St. John’s backcourt tandem of Ponds and sophomore guard Justin Simon to 29 combined points.
Bluiett said he knew Simon and Ponds used ball screens to get open and that Xavier’s guards could use that to their advantage.
“Our guards did a good job executing, taking them out of their game a little bit,” Bluiett said. “Knowing what we’re supposed to do on ball screens and take them out of the game kind of worked for us.”
After taking a 33-29 halftime advantage, Xavier built a 67-46 lead in the second half on a bevy of 3-pointers, including six straight points from Bluiett.
Xavier shot only 36 percent from the field in the first half, but was aided by a swarming perimeter defense that converted 16 points off eight St. John’s turnovers in the first half.
St. John’s isolation offense proved futile against Xavier’s pack line and zone defense.
The Johnnies hit five-of-15 treys, but were unable to convert buckets down-low, or draw fouls, leading to only three combined assists
It didn’t help the Johnnies had a distinct size disadvantage on the glass.
The Musketeers dominated the paint in the first half, scoring 16 points down-low after gaining a 20-13 rebound advantage, including seven offensive boards. St. John’s was out-rebounded 42-30 on the night.
The first half was only kept close thanks to Johnnies’ sophomore guard Justin Simon, who had 12 points in the first 10 minutes of regulation, two more than the rest of his team combined.
Simon connected on 2-of-3 3s on 5-of-7 shooting in the first half.
In the second half, the Musketeers jumped to a 10-point lead on a Bluiett 3-pointer with 15:41 remaining, sparking a 3-point barrage for the Musketeers in the second half.
Junior forward Kaiser Gates nailed a 3 to give the Musketeers a 48-35 lead at the 14:31 mark, then drained another trey with two minutes later to bring the score to 53-40.
Xavier built an 18-point lead after Bluiett drilled a corner 3 in the face of a defender, bringing the score to 64-46 with 9:04 left.
The Musketeers ramped up the defensive pressure in the final 10 minutes.
Simon said there was no answer for Xavier’s ferocious defensive pressure down the stretch.
“I’m not sure what adjustments they made, but they definitely stepped up their defense,” Simon said.