No. 9 Xavier hangs on to defeat Northern Iowa
Ninth-ranked Xavier welcomed a pair of starters back to the lineup and its top scorer started to shake off a recent slump.
The Musketeers leaned heavily on all three in a tough road environment Friday night.
J.P. Macura returned from injury to score 15 points and the Musketeers held off a late surge for a 77-67 win against Northern Iowa on Friday night at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Macura, who missed Tuesday’s win versus Marshall with a concussion, made 6 of 11 shots in 32 minutes.
The Musketeers (12-1) won their seventh consecutive game, and three others scored in double figures as the team shot 52.1 percent, including 12 of 23 on 3-pointers. Trevon Bluiett scored 12 points, Kaiser Gates 11 and Kerem Kanter 10.
The Panthers (8-4) shot 40.4 percent from the field and forced 15 Xavier turnovers — but just two after halftime.
“I was really proud of the team’s maturity,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. “We were playing an excellent defensive team. I asked (my team) to have a little more maturity, go deeper into the shot clock, and throw the ball to us.”
Tied at 29 at the break, Xavier opened the second half with a 14-4 run. The Musketeers owned a double-digit advantage as late as the 13:31 mark, but a pair of 3-pointers by Panthers reserve Wyatt Lohaus tied the game at 46.
Xavier answered with another 9-2 spurt, but Bluiett fouled out with 2:25 to play. Bennett Koch converted a pair of ensuing free throws to cut the deficit to 60-57, but Northern Iowa got no closer.
Koch scored 16 of his game-high 26 points in the second half before fouling out with 1:46 remaining.
“With a team like this, if we make a mistake on defense, which we really pride ourselves on, they make us pay for it,” Koch said.
The Musketeers were 8-for-8 on free throws inside the final minute and finished 15 for 19 at the line.
“Northern Iowa is much different than a lot of teams we’ve played so far,” Mack said. “They want to play a low-possession game.
“I think we wore them down a little bit. In the second half, I thought we played with a lot more composure.”
Xavier’s leading scorer took a selective approach in the first half as the teams battled to a draw.
Bluiett, a 49.1 percent shooter averaging 20.4 points, came into contest battling a minor knee injury and a recent slump. The senior made just 31.4 percent of his shots over the last two games, including a 4-of-13 performance and 10 points against Marshall, and he was held out of contact drills in practice earlier in the week.
Bluiett continued his struggles early and turned the ball over three times inside the first five minutes. The Panthers took advantage and built a 10-point lead past the midway point of the first half.
“I thought we had a great opportunity in the first half,” Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said. “Our defense was good, we got 13 turnovers and gave up just one offensive rebound. We did such a good job in that first half.”
Bluiett didn’t attempt his first shot until converting a 3-pointer with 9:34 left before the break, and that ignited a 13-0 run bookended by another Bluiett 3 to take a 25-22 lead.
The baskets were Bluiett’s lone first-half shot attempts, along with a pair of made free throws, yet his eight points led all Musketeers through 20 minutes.
The Panthers, who trailed by as many as five late in the half, missed nine consecutive shots before Ted Friedman’s layup at the 3:47 mark ended a six-minute drought.
“They’re good,” Jacobson said, “and they have experience and they make plays. As I told the guys, that’s where we’re headed. What we saw from them in the last 10 minutes, that’s where we need to get to. We’ve got a good team, but we’re not there yet.”
NOTES: Xavier G J.P. Macura and F Kaiser Gates returned to the starting lineup. Both sat out Tuesday’s win over Marshall with concussions and returned to practice on Thursday. Reserve G Naji Marshall (back) also played after exiting the Marshall game early and logged 17 minutes. ... Northern Iowa dropped to 6-1 and 12-7 all-time against ranked opponents at home. ... Despite making just 11 of 30 shots in the first half, UNI forced 13 turnovers before the break to slow Xavier. ... The loss snapped a string of 10 consecutive wins for Northern Iowa in the month of December.