By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Justin Cage did not know it until the game was over, but he had a somewhat distinguished fan evaluating him during Saturday's game between Xavier and Massachusetts at Cintas Center.
After watching her younger cousin play the best game of his brief Xavier career, R&B recording artist Athena Cage had to say she was rather impressed. She was waiting outside the Xavier locker room to congratulate Cage, a 6-foot-6 freshman forward, who led Xavier to a 64-44 win against UMass.
Xavier's Justin Cage goes to the hoop.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
Cage put up career highs of 12 points and six assists to go with five rebounds as Xavier won its fourth straight game, improving to 14-9 and 5-5 in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Cage become the first freshman to lead Xavier in scoring in a single game since current senior Romain Sato scored 19 points in a Feb. 10, 2001, win against Temple.
"If he plays like this, I'll have to come to all the games," Athena Cage said. "This is the first college game I've seen him play. I was telling his mom that I can just see his improvement and his confidence growing."
That is exactly what Xavier's coaching staff hoped would happen when coach Thad Matta inserted Cage into the starting lineup four games ago against Cincinnati.
In his new role, Cage brought an immediate defensive presence but had not produced in bulk offensively until he hit a pair of 3-pointers Saturday in the first five minutes.
On a day when Xavier's leading scorers, Sato and Lionel Chalmers, combined for one first-half point, Cage's 10 points in the first 20 minutes were essential to giving the Musketeers a 31-19 halftime lead.
Xavier's Romain Sato grabs a rebound in the first half.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
"Coach kept telling me to have confidence, shoot the ball," Cage said. "A lot of times on tape, I see that I'm open, but I wouldn't shoot. My dad is always telling me to shoot the ball. Don't overdo it, but just get your confidence and get your rhythm."
Learning to play on the college level has been a season-long process for Cage. Indiana's Mr. Basketball as a senior last season at Indianapolis Pike, Cage came to Xavier with some questions about his role.
"I think back to November and December and grabbing him during timeouts and saying, 'Play basketball,' " Matta said. " 'Be aggressive. Don't worry about anything, just make plays.' I think he's really settled in with that."
It helps that Cage has worked on his game individually as much as any Xavier player this season, along with freshman Justin Doellman, who scored 11 points Saturday. The two have moved into the starting lineup, with Doellman averaging 6.2 points, and Cage 5.0 points.
"With those two guys, they're the two that are the last ones to leave the gym every day, and they're the first ones in there every day," Matta said. "On a day off, you look down and hear the ball bouncing, and they're the ones in there."
Cage isn't one to heap glory upon himself, or even bring up that he got his points by taking just six shots. He's more likely to discuss his role as a defender and how he looks to find shots for Sato, Chalmers and senior Anthony Myles.
But, like any player, he appreciates the recognition that comes with filling up the scoring column.
"I'm really just getting comfortable and everything," Cage said. "It kind of feels good when your shot goes in."
Team rebounds - 4.
Team rebounds - 6.
3-pointers - UM 4-26 (Viggiano 0-4, Maxwell 0-6, Chadwick 0-2, Bowers 2-4, Martin 0-1, Anderson 2-9), XU 10-25 (Cage 2-3, Doellman 3-4, Chalmers 3-6, Sato 1-7, Finn 1-5). Technicals - None. Officials - Anderson, DeMayo, Clark. Attendance - 10,250.
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