CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — With conference play on the horizon, Xavier found itself in a hostile gym against a quality opponent — something the Musketeers will experience quite a bit in the weeks to come.
Xavier held off multiple pushes from pesky Northern Iowa on Friday night in what it hopes is a sign of things to come.
J.P. Macura scored 15 points and the ninth-ranked Musketeers hung on to beat the Panthers 77-67 for its seventh straight win.
“This is a great win for our team. An absolutely great win,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “Our guys had a lot of respect coming in for the environment.”
Trevon Bluiett scored 12 points with seven rebounds before fouling out for the Musketeers (12-1), who went on an 11-2 run down the stretch, highlighted by a 3 by Bluiett, to break open a tie game.
Macura’s breakaway dunk and 3 in the final 95 seconds left sealed it for Xavier, which shot 12 of 23 from 3-point range.
This matchup between one of the nation’s top offenses in Xavier and one of its best defenses in Northern Iowa looked like it might swing toward the Panthers after they jumped by 10 early in the first half.
The Musketeers rallied though — despite 13 first-half turnovers and a 10-0 Panthers run that tied it at 46-all — thanks largely to a 31-11 spurt spanning the halves.
“I thought our focus was good. Our turnovers weren’t, but we cleaned that up in the second half,” Mack said. “This is great for our program, to get down 10 points and have the fortitude for come back.”
Northern Iowa got within 60-57 before Tyrique Jones followed a block with two free throws, and Macura’s back-to-back baskets ensured that the Musketeers would survive.
“They were better than us,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “They were a little more patient (in the second half).”
Bennett Koch had 26 points for the Panthers (8-4), who have also lost to Villanova, North Carolina and Iowa State.
Xavier: The Musketeers will exit non-conference play with just one loss, to third-ranked Arizona State, and Macura and Kaiser Gates played extended minutes after missing Tuesday’s win over Marshall. They will enter Big East play as a legitimate contender, though top-ranked Villanova remains the league favorite.
Northern Iowa: The underdog Panthers were hoping a win would bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, which already includes wins over SMU, North Carolina State and UNLV. Now, Northern Iowa will watch its lofty RPI dwindle in the weeks to come in Missouri Valley play.
Xavier ensured that Northern Iowa — a team that can get hot from 3-point range — didn’t creep back into it by hitting its free throws down the stretch. The Musketeers were 15 of 19 from the charity stripe. … The Panthers were just 10 of 26 on 3s. … Gates finished with 11 points and nine rebounds and Kerem Kanter had 10 points with seven boards. … Xavier had just two turnovers in the second half. …
Koch was a beast in the post, shooting 8 of 12 from the field and 10 of 12 from the line. But Northern Iowa couldn’t get anyone else going, as Spencer Haldeman and Wyatt Lohaus were the only other players to hit at least three shots. The Panthers defense kept them in it, as they scored 20 points off turnovers.
HE SAID IT
“They’ve got a terrific team. Their experience showed up at a couple of key times in the second half,” Jacobson said. “You make a mistake, they make you pay.”
Xavier plays at Marquette on Dec. 27.
Northern Iowa hosts Southern Illinois on Dec. 28.