CINCINNATI — Leading up to the showdown with Villanova for control of the Big East, Xavier coach Chris Mack had one overriding concern.
"If we play one good half and one bad half, we won't win," Mack said.
That's exactly what happened. No. 4 Xavier came out tight, committed early fouls and missed open shots, and the third-ranked Wildcats raced ahead by 19 points.Xavier recovered in the second half, cut the lead to three, but couldn't get any closer as Villanova held on for a 95-79 win.
The outcome left Xavier (24-4, 12-3) tied with Villanova (24-3, 11-3) in the loss column for the league lead. It also reminded the Musketeers of their biggest shortcoming in one of their best seasons — they hit a lull that's hard to explain.
"We have the potential to be really good," said leading scorer Trevon Bluiett, who had 26 points against Villanova. "Our problem is we are a one-half team.
Tough one tonight, but thank you to the 10,777 that made it rockin' in Cintas Center. pic.twitter.com/qOflW3pzfT— Xavier Gameday (@XavierGameday) February 18, 2018
"We need to learn to put both halves together. We have a great first half, and in the second half we always die down. Our biggest thing is energy."
The Musketeers have a tendency to ease up at times, giving opponents a chance to get momentum. It's a focus as they prepare for a rematch at Georgetown (15-10, 5-9) on Wednesday.
Xavier held its ground in the Top 25 despite the loss on Saturday. Three days earlier, the Musketeers beat Seton Hall 102-90 at the Cintas Center in another game of dramatic swings. Xavier's defense clamped down in the first half, setting up a 45-25 lead. The Musketeers eased up, Seton Hall hit some shots, and the Pirates went on to score 65 points in the second half, turning it into a close game.
"We took our foot off the gas pedal in the second half and they kept going," said Bluiett, who scored 37 points against the Pirates. "Once you get into a rhythm like that, it's hard to stop a team."
The Musketeers had enough offense to hold on, but the game was a reminder of their biggest challenge as the conference race winds down and tournament time approaches. They've had this problem numerous times.
They fell behind ETSU by 22 points before rallying for a 68-66 win on Dec. 16 at the Cintas Center. Two weeks later, they trailed DePaul by 16 points before pulling out a 77-72 win, also at home.
In both cases, Xavier missed shots and was flat defensively while falling behind, then got the momentum by clamping down on defense.
"It's just not being locked in at all times," Bluiett said. "I feel most of it is mental."
On Wednesday, the Musketeers get a rematch with the team that took them to overtime at the Cintas Center on Feb. 3. Bluiett made a four-point play late in regulation to tie it, and finished with 31 overall in a 96-91 win. Xavier has won four straight and seven of eight against the Hoyas.
Xavier then has a week off before hosting Providence, which beat the Musketeers 81-72 on Jan. 6. They finish the regular season at DePaul on March 3.
Meanwhile, Villanova host DePaul on Wednesday, followed by games at Creighton and Seton Hall before finishing at home against Georgetown.
The Musketeers need to sweep the Hoyas to keep up with Villanova in the league race.
"Georgetown played us so tough the first time around," Mack said. "They were really physical. They got the ball inside. They had their way in the post. We gave up a lot of easy baskets. That's got to be eliminated on the road if we want to come away with a win."