The first game of the new Big East started slowly for both teams, but the newcomers from Cincinnati found their legs and showed why they belong in the ten-team league in a 70-60 win over the visiting St. John's squad early in the afternoon of New Year's Eve.
St. John's didn't have an answer for Xavier's patience, fast breaking skills and tenacity despite strong efforts from D`Angelo Harrison (21 on 7/20 shooting) and activity from Rysheed Jordan (career-high 17 points). The Musketeers were buoyed by a balanced effort and a strong defense that collapsed in the paint, holding the Red Storm to contested jump shots.
Xavier improved to 11-3, 1-0 in the Big East; St. John's falls to 9-4, 0-1 in Big East play.
St. John's travels to the nation's capital to face the Georgetown Hoyas next on Saturday, January 4 at 1 PM. It will be the 100th meeting between the two squads.
The Xavier Musketeers were jacked up to start their Big East career after 18 seasons in the Atlantic-10 - and perhaps they were too jacked. Going into the second media timeout, the Musketeers had scored a total of two points, committed three turnovers, and struggled to find rhythm against the Red Storm zone, which started a large front line of God`sGift Achiuwa, JaKarr Sampson, and Orlando Sanchez. The fans were restless, having been on their feet for nearly nine minutes.
"I thought we had a little bit of nerves," Xavier coach Chris Mack said of his squad. "In the first nine minutes we just weren't getting them to go down. It's easier said than done to finish around the basket [against the St. John's]."
"Our team came out, played very well, had a strong first half," St. John's Steve Lavin said.
A mistake in transition got the speedy point guard Semaj Christon free for a dunk, and the Musketeers started to settle down into a rhythm. Taking high-value shots - strictly in the paint and from outside the arc - they drew the Johnnies' 11-2 lead to a 29-27 halftime deficit.
With an 11-0 run to start the second half, the Musketeers earned a cushion that carried them through the rest of the game.
"It was really a tale of two halves, Xavier dominated, took control of the game in the first five minutes," Lavin lamented. "We made some runs and hung around, but didn't have enough to get over the hump."
St. John's was down as many as 11 in the second half, and cut the Xavier lead to four with under six minutes to go, but could edge no closer.
Xavier's strength came from patient offense on pick and roll and finding open spaces when St. John's played in the zone. Their transition game warped the Red Storm defense, leaving players scrambling in the second half to stop drives.
"We got lost a couple times behind the zone," Mack said, "and our kids got some confidence."
Xavier shot 11/19 in the second half and drew 21 foul shots in the second half (though many were after the Red Storm pressed and fouled to extend the game).
Meanwhile, the length and positioning of Xavier kept St. John's out of the paint, forcing the Johnnies into a 6/28 half (21% on twos) inside the arc and 14/52 (26% on twos) for the game.
Justin Martin had 15 for Xavier (12 in the second half) to lead a balanced attack; five players scored nine or more points for the Musketeers.
God`sGifrt Achiuwa earned a start; the Johnnies played eleven men, with Marc-Antoine Bourgault coming in during the final minute of play.
JaKarr Sampson added 10 points on 5/15 shooting.
St. John's shot 7/14 (50%) outside the arc to stay close.