By Dan Gardella
New York – Since the realignment of the Big East, the #4/#5 seed matchup in the quarterfinal round have traditionally been a staple for giving the top seed of the tournament a run for their money. So it’s fitting that the two hottest teams in the conference face off with each other with a trip to the semifinals on the line.
It was big man Zach Hankins who converted on a put back layup with 21 seconds left to propel Xavier into the Big East semifinals with a 63-61 victory over the Creighton Blue Jays.
Ty-Shon Alexander would knock down a three to get things started for the Blue Jays. He would then follow up his long range shot with a layup inside to score the first five points of the game himself.
After a free throw by Naji Marshall, Mitch Ballock would connect on a three pointer to make it 8-1 just four minutes in. But Xavier, who finished the season winners of six of their last seven entering New York would battle back with seven of the next nine points to cut the Blue Jay lead to two.
“I thought going into the game, we had to really be able to control the tempo of the game,” said Xavier head coach Travis Steele. “Our guys were a little bit out of gas, we were playing up and down fast. They push it fast off of misses and makes.”
Creighton would answer the Xavier run with a 9-2 run to open it back to a nine point lead with 11:40 to go. But Xavier would not go away that easily. The Musketeers would lock down defensively and eventually tie the game at 24 courtesy of a Zach Hankins dunk.
The game would be tied again at 26, but the Musketeers would go on a 10-3 run, finished off by a buzzer-beater by Quentin Goodin to help Xavier take a seven point lead into the locker room at halftime.
The late momentum in the first half carried over into early in the second half, as the lead would expand to 12 four minutes in. Things looked to be getting out of hand for the Blue Jays.
But like Xavier, Creighton had a run in them. The Blue Jays would rattle off a 10-0 run over the next five minutes to make it a two point game with 12 minutes to play. From there, no team could find the knockout punch needed to separate themselves from the other.
Xavier thought they had the dagger with 2:20 remaining when Hankins would covert on an inside shot to extend the Musketeer lead to 7. But Creighton punched right back. Led by Alexander, Creighton would go on an 8-1 run in the span of a minute and a half to tie the score once again heading into the final minute of play. Xavier would get a chance to respond and re-take the lead with time running down.
Goodin would dribble the clock down and then step inside the three-point line before firing away, a shot that Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said he wanted the guard to take. While the shot went long, Hankins was there to clean up the mess and give Xavier a 63-61 lead with 21 seconds to play.
With the shot clock off, the Blue Jays moved the ball around and had it in Alexander’s hands, the man they wanted.
After dribbling on the perimeter, Alexander finally went to work, trying to get around Kyle Castlin, but his final shot got block as the Musketeers let the final seconds tick away.
After the initial relief of winning a close game, Xavier was on their way to the semifinals for the sixth straight season.
“I’m really proud of our group,” said Steele. “Obviously, we’re excited to play against a really good Villanova team tomorrow in the semifinals.”
The Musketeers would led by Hankins, who scored 22 points while grabbing 9 rebounds in the winning effort. In the two meetings in the regular season, Hankins had been held to 16 points combined.
“I just really take what is given to me,” said Hankins. “I don’t create a lot myself. That’s why I give so much credit to these guys. They find me.”
For Creighton, their hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid now lie in the hands of the committee. Whether it’s the NCAA Tournament or the NIT, Greg McDermott is ready for the task ahead.
“It depends if playing a good schedule gets rewarded,” said McDermott. “We played a top ten schedule in the country. If that’s important, then we will have a shot. If it doesn’t. If the committee decides it’s not that important, then we won’t.”
PHOTO: Zach Hankins/Cincinnati.com