If Xavier goes on to capture its fifth straight Atlantic 10 regular season title this year, the Musketeers may remember the final two seconds of Saturday's first half at Richmond as one of the sequences that put them over the top.
Xavier led by just with the first-half clock ticking down when Tu Holloway pulled up from the left wing, shot-faked and drew a three-shot foul on Richmond guard Darien Brothers with 1.3 seconds to go. Then after a Spiders turnover gave the ball back to the Musketeers, Holloway inbounded the ball off Dan Geriot's back and laid it in at the buzzer to out of nowhere push Xavier's lead to seven.
"It gave us great momentum going into the half," Chris Mack said by phone after the game. "Obviously we knew there was a lot of basketball to be played, but we felt like those two plays really sum up Tu's IQ for the game. To be able to draw a foul and then to have the presence of mind to throw the ball off the defenders back and finish in 1.3 seconds, he's a special player."
The confidence boost from those two plays from Holloway helped Xavier turn a hotly contested Atlantic 10 showdown into a surprisingly lopsided 85-62 rout. Despite being down to just seven healthy scholarship players as a result of roster turnover and a flurry of early injuries, the Musketeers (15-5, 7-0) have a half-game lead on second-place Duquesne and at least a two-game cushion on everybody else.
The primary reason Xavier managed to win so convincingly at Richmond was a virtuoso performance from Holloway, who merits more All-American attention than he has received up to this point.
Holloway scored a career-high 33 points, dished out five assists, grabbed seven rebounds and converted all 17 of his free throw attempts. Not a single Richmond defender had any success keeping Xavier's 6-foot junior point guard from penetrating the lane and getting to the rim as he had 14 straight second-half points at one point.
"He had one of the better individual efforts I've ever seen as a coach," Mack said. "He has such a knack for drawing fouls and finishing through contact. Today was a banner day for him and for our team."
It would have been difficult to predict this seven-game win streak from Xavier after the Musketeers lost by 20 at rival Cincinnati on Jan. 6.
The Musketeers entered conference play amid whispers that a 10th NCAA tournament berth in 11 years might be too daunting a goal to achieve. Between sharpshooter Brad Redford's season-ending knee injury, swingman Jay Canty's stress fracture in his right foot and top recruit Justin Martin's academic woes, Xavier has no perimeter players available off its bench and has leaned heavily on its stars.
While 13.6 points per game in A-10 play from 7-footer Kenny Frease and consistent production from Mark Lyons and Jamel Mclean have helped, Holloway has been the centerpiece of the turnaround. He's averaging 20.5 points per game and shooting a career-high 44.9 percent from the field, all while logging a ridiculous 38.4 minutes a game as a result of Xavier's lack of bench.
"If you had asked me before the season started if I thought Tu would be this special of a player, I don't know if I could have said yes," Mack said. "What he's done the past two months has been remarkable. He's had to do it playing almost every single minute."
The departure of last year's stars Jason Love and Jordan Crawford appeared to turn this into a potential transition year for Xavier, yet the Musketeers have responded to adversity and established themselves as contenders yet again.
They're done with Temple and Richmond for the remainder of the regular season now, just another reason Xavier should feel good about its chances to hang a fifth straight Atlantic 10 championship banner.
"Today's win only counts as one game, but we knew who Richmond was coming in," Mack said. "They're one of the premier teams in our conference, a veteran team with four seniors in its starting lineup, a team that's very hard to play against. This should give us a boost of confidence going forward."
- the Musketeers