By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Xavier was not perfect, and Saturday the Musketeers nearly had to be if they were going to beat Delonte West and Jameer Nelson.
Until the final two minutes, the game between Xavier and Saint Joseph's played out brilliantly on the Cintas Center court. Extraordinary individual efforts from the Hawks' West and Nelson were matched by inspired team play from Xavier, which refused to back down from the No. 6 team for 38 minutes.
Then, as if Xavier forgot where it was, the Musketeers took bad shots, made even worse passes and gave away any chance to upset unbeaten Saint Joseph's. Forced to foul at the end, Xavier (9-6, 1-2 Atlantic 10) eventually faded from contention as Saint Joseph's made its free throws and won 81-73 in front of a sold-out crowd.
"It's tough," guard Lionel Chalmers said. "We knew we could have pulled it out if we didn't make some mistakes down the stretch. It could have been a different story."
Instead, the story was the individual play of Nelson and West, who accounted for 61 of Saint Joseph's 81 points, or 75.3 percent. West, a junior shooting guard, made all 12 of his field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws for 33 points. Nelson, a national player of the year candidate, scored 28 on 11-of-18 shooting.
"You saw the best player in America, and you saw the best backcourt in America," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "I've been chastised before for promoting my own, but I don't really give a damn. They are what they are. That was an exercise in toughness."
Saint Joseph's had to overcome a Xavier team that shot 57.1 percent in the first half and held a 41-35 lead at halftime thanks to sharp outside shooting. Chalmers made all three of his 3-point attempts in the half and Xavier made 6-of-7 from 3-point range. But the Musketeers could not build a sizeable advantage over Saint Joseph's, or rather West and Nelson, who scored 30 of the Hawks' 35 first-half points.
Xavier freshman Justin Doellman opened the second half with a long jump shot, and Xavier led by eight points, which would be the Musketeers' largest lead for the rest of the game. Saint Joseph's slowly came back, and West made his eighth-straight shot, a spinning fadeaway jumper, that gave the Hawks their first lead of the second half, 51-49 with 13:29 left.
Romain Sato answered the next trip down the court by hitting a 3-pointer from the corner, with West's hand in his face, and he put Xavier back on top. Neither team led by more than four points for the next five minutes.
Xavier took its last lead when Sato was fouled on a fast-break layup. He missed the free throw, leaving the Musketeers ahead 71-70 with 3:08 to play. Then, someone other than West or Nelson finally made a play for Saint Joseph's when Pat Carroll made a 3 from the corner on an assist from Nelson. Saint Joseph's, which improved to 15-0 and 5-0 in the Atlantic 10, never trailed again.
"That was a great college basketball game," Xavier coach Thad Matta said. "You hate the fact that we lost. To battle and take the lead back with three (minutes) to go. They come down and hit a tough 3. They made the plays at the end that we couldn't make."
The game itself told Xavier players that they can match up with a team like Saint Joseph's, which is one of four undefeated teams in the country. But the Musketeers have lost two conference games in a row and will need some convincing wins to pull out an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
"That would have been a pretty good win for us," said Chalmers who led Xavier with 23 points. "The thing that we get out of it is we understand how well we can play. We understand where were at as a team, and we know we can play with the best."
Team rebounds - 3.
Team rebounds - 2.
3-pointers - SJ 9-20 (Carroll 2-3, Nelson 4-9, West 3-3, Barley 0-2, Mallon 0-3), XU 8-13 (Doellman 1-1, Chalmers 4-6, Sato 2-3, Finn 1-3). Technicals - None. Officials - Roberts, Steratore, Murphy. Attendance - 10,250.
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