Sunday, January 18, 2004

Daugherty: West one high-flying Hawk


Muskies show their mettle, but guards too much to overcome

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With 7:40 left in the game, the Xavier Musketeers were down three and playing defense as if someone had just slapped their mothers. The shot clock was at four seconds when Delonte West drove the lane and slipped in a jumper as if he were trying on a pair of shoes. "We grabbed his arm and he still made the shot," XU coach Thad Matta said. "I don't know what else you can do."

Strap yourself in, coach, and admire the view.

The best athletic performances prompt incredulous laughter: Yeah-right chuckles. Can-you-believe that? smiles. Delonte West and his backcourt buddy Jameer Nelson had us grinning all afternoon.

PHOTO GALLERY

Photos of Saturday's game
The Muskies lost 81-73 to sixth-ranked Saint Joseph's. They didn't get smeared. They didn't get Jameer-ed. Nelson might be the best player in America. Saturday, he wasn't even the best player in Evanston.

That would have been West, who scored 33 points and made all 12 of his field goal tries and all six of his free throws. As Xavier's Lionel Chalmers noted, "You take 12 layups, you might miss one. Take nothing away from them but I mean, 12-for-12?"

Chalmers can take consolation in knowing the next time Xavier plays Saint Joe's, there is an outside chance West will not take 12 shots and make them all. If the Muskies keep playing this way, they'll win lots of games. If West, a 6-foot-4 junior, keeps playing this way, we'll check him for wires.

As it was, Xavier won a measure of confidence, even while losing. The Muskies are still wandering the post-David West desert: No consistent inside game, no real identity. But they led the Hawks by six at halftime and 71-70 with three minutes to go. As Chalmers said, "We understand now how well we can play."

They played well enough to win on a normal night. This wasn't normal. Nelson, the senior point guard who blew off the NBA for one more season of blowing up the Atlantic 10, carried the first half with 15 points and a circus catalog of moves. One move he made, a driving, spinning, scooping layup that put the Hawks ahead 13-7, could have been a 30-minute Jazzercise video.

Nelson is more fun than champagne, more fun than a Maserati and 1,000 miles of open road. He's illegal in Utah. But for the first 20 minutes, Chalmers matched him oooh for aaah. Chalmers had 15 points. He didn't miss a shot until less than a minute remained in the half. After that, Xavier got just enough from Dedrick Finn, Justin Cage and Romain Sato to stay close.

What the Muskies didn't count on was West's perfection. "I'd almost like to keep playing, to see if he's ever going to miss," Matta said. "I don't think the ball ever hit the rim." Then, just as the Muskies had slowed West, forward Pat Carroll nailed them with two crucial 3-pointers in the last five minutes.

That was the ballgame. If Saint Joe's is sixth-best, the Muskies aren't as far behind as some suspected, especially after their dreadful show Wednesday at Duquesne. Judging from Saturday, you have to figure the Hawks are no worse than two-fifths off the sixth-best team in the country. But what a two-fifths. West and Nelson had 61 points and seven assists, meaning they had a hand in at least 75 of their team's 81 points.

If Delonte West never misses again, maybe they're better than that. He might, though. He just might.

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E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com




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