SAN JOSE, Calif — Only a couple weeks ago, Xavier needed another win or two just to secure its place in the NCAA tournament.
Now the Musketeers are a victory away from the Final Four.
Eleventh-seeded Xavier rallied from an eight-point deficit in the final four minutes against second-seeded Arizona to advance to the Elite Eight for the third time in program history. Sean O’Mara scored the go-ahead basket in the final minute, a layup off a nice high-low feed from Trevon Bluiett to propel the Musketeers to a 73-71 upset.
Arizona had two chances to tie the game or win it after O’Mara’s basket but neither time did the Wildcats manage to get their future lottery pick Lauri Markkanen the ball. Kadeem Allen missed a runner in the lane on Arizona’s first attempt. Allonzo Trier had a potential game-winning 3-pointer rim out on the Wildcats’ second try.
“We got down eight points with about four minutes to go, and I just told them to not try to get it all back in one or two possessions,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “For us to be able to go out and put together consecutive stops and come down and execute, it says a lot about how much our team has grown.”
That Xavier is in the Elite Eight is remarkable considering how poorly the Musketeers played after losing star point guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending knee injury in late January. At one point, Xavier lost six straight games and went an entire month beating nobody besides DePaul.
“It’s March Madness,” Xavier forward Sean O’Mara said. “Once you’re in it, you never know what’s going to happen. Seeds don’t mean anything at this point.”
Things were so bleak that Mack had to get creative to reinvigorate his team. Near the end of his team’s losing streak, he burnt a February calendar, placed the ashes in a glass urn and displayed it in the Xavier locker room as a symbolic message that the Musketeers’ struggles were behind them.
Clever motivational tactics aside, it has been strong defense, relentless rebounding and the brilliance of Bluiett that has carried Xavier during the NCAA tournament. Bluiett torched Arizona’s vaunted perimeter defense for 25 points on Thursday night less than a week after he lit up Maryland for 21 and Florida State for 29.
Repeated defensive breakdowns were another bitter pill to swallow for the Wildcats. They have reached the Sweet 16 five times in eight years under Sean Miller, but they’ve yet to get their coach to his first Final Four.
Arizona looked like it might be safe when it answered a second-half surge from Xavier with 12 straight points of its own. Trier and Allen both sank huge 3-pointers during the run, propelling the Wildcats from a four-point deficit with seven minutes to go to an eight-point lead just three minutes later.
But Xavier responded with a show of resilience mirroring what the Musketeers have delivered this March.
“[Arizona had] a lot of great one-on-one type, [isolation] players,” Xavier guard Quentin Goodin said. “But for them to do it so much, I guess that kind of threw me off. It made it easier on us — playing one vs. three, one vs. five at some points. It really made it easy on us to just focus on one guy and rebound the ball.”
Now they’re 40 minutes away from the most improbable of Final Fours.
More March Madness coverage on Yahoo Sports:
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• John Thompson III out at Georgetown after 13 seasons
• Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes rails against New York
• Ranking the most compelling potential Final Four matchups
• NCAA gives state of North Carolina deadline to repeal controversial law
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