XAVIER 79, TEXAS 71: Despite foul trouble and erratic shooting, the Musketeers reach their first Elite Eight.
By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published March 27, 2004
ATLANTA - Even though he had one of the hottest teams in the NCAA Tournament, Xavier coach Thad Matta believed he had to come up with a pep talk on the eve of Friday's Sweet 16 matchup against Texas.
"That was the biggest job I had, convincing these guys (Thursday) night that they could get the job done," he said. "And it wasn't hard."
His Musketeers are a confident bunch, and despite an off-shooting night from star Lionel Chalmers, foul trouble, some missed free throws and no field goals in the final 7:15, they proved it.
Xavier held off the No.3-seeded Longhorns 79-71 in front of an announced 24,533 at the Georgia Dome to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time.
"I don't know if there's a team left in this thing that's had a tougher road than we had in Louisville, Mississippi State and Texas," Matta said. "It's been an incredible run."
The No.7-seeded Musketeers (26-10), winners of nine straight and 16 of their past 17, including then-undefeated Saint Joseph's in the Atlantic 10 tournament and SEC regular-season champion Mississippi State on Sunday in Orlando, seemingly had the game safely in hand midway through the second half.
Chalmers, senior guard Romain Sato and senior center Anthony Myles combined for all the points in a 13-3 run in less than four minutes that gave Xavier a 63-53 lead.
But the Longhorns (25-8), a veteran bunch with Final Four experience from last season, rallied behind the play of senior guard Brandon Mouton and senior forward Brian Boddicker. A Boddicker 3-pointer cut the Xavier lead to 70-68 with 3:04 left.
Mouton, who finished with a team-high 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting, fouled out a minute later. Sophomore guard Dedrick Finn and Sato, however, each missed a free throw, and Boddicker's third 3-pointer brought Texas within 72-71 with 16.8 seconds left.
Sato, the game's leading scorer with 27, made two more free throws (he hit 14-of-17 in a foul-plagued game), and then it was left to the Musketeers defense and rebounding to seal the win.
"We understand if we defend, we'll have a chance to win," said Chalmers, who was coming off a career-high 31 points (on 11-of-13 shooting) against Mississippi State but struggled mightily on this night, making 4-of-15.
The best Texas could manage was a double-clutched 3-point attempt by junior guard Sydmill Harris. The ball clanged off the rim, and if the Longhorns, who led the Big 12 in rebounding margin, could have gotten it they had a few seconds left for another potential tying shot.
"The coaches have been on us guards about rebounding day in and day out," Finn said. "If we could get two, three apiece, that would be a good key to the game. I saw it come off, and when it comes crunch time everybody's got to go all out, and I just went and got it."
He drew a foul, and Texas coach Rick Barnes, who had been trying to talk to the officials all game about calling fouls inside as they were on the perimeter, was whistled for two technicals and ejected.
"We didn't want it to end like that," Barnes said. "Our goal with this group was to win the national championship. But I can't tell you what this group has meant to the program and where they have taken it."
Xavier sealed the win by hitting 5 of 6 free throws.
"Foul trouble hurt us tonight," Matta said, referring to the disqualification of starting forward Justin Cage and the limitations on forward Justin Doellman (22 minutes). "We were in scramble mode probably the last seven minutes of the game. But the most important thing, I really believe this, our guys believed they could win the basketball game."
Thanks to the pep talk?
"If anybody can get us up for a game, it's Coach Matta," Chalmers said. "No one knew that we could get to this point, and to get to this point it means more than it does for a team like Duke, teams that are supposed to get there. It means more to us as players and coaches, and I think it means a whole lot to see how good we are. But I want to see how good we can be."