Sunday, February 24, 2002

XU seeks end to road doldrums

1st-half deficits have been snags on last 3 trips

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PITTSBURGH — The numbers suggest this is the easiest part of Xavier's schedule. The calendar, though, bespeaks crunch time.

        For a team that has planned to peak for the postseason, it's time to rev the engines.

        “We've wanted to be playing our best basketball at March,” coach Thad Matta said. “We're playing good, though we've had some tough games lately. But it's a three-game season now.”

        Having clinched a share of the Atlantic 10 West crown, XU (19-5, 11-2 Atlantic 10) begins its stretch run of three games in seven days today at Duquesne (9-16, 4-10). Then come home dates with La Salle and Massachusetts.

        Duquesne (No.173 RPI on Saturday) and LaSalle (147) are two of the lowest-rated teams in the league, and UMass (118) has lost six of its last eight and 14 of 21.

        The Musketeers, who have split their last four games, say their focus is internal.

        “We've faltered here the last two weeks or so,” junior center David West said. “We went on the road and got caught up in the other team and weren't concerned about us. We haven't gotten ourselves ready to play.”

        XU was 8-1 on the road this season before falling by a point at St. Bonaventure and being hammered Wednesday at Temple. The concern, West said, is that the team has faced double-digit, first-half deficits in each of its last three road games.

        “We haven't done the things we were doing earlier in the year on the road: getting ready to go right out of the gate,” he said. “We get down and have to fight our way back. We have to go in with the mindset that we're going to take control of the game.”

        XU is 17-0 when leading or tied at halftime.

        “You've gotta know that when you're in first place, you're going to get that team's best shot,” Matta said. “Maybe you forget about that over the course of a season.

        “We've got to have greater focus starting games, not get our backs against the wall to wake us up.”

        XU beat the Dukes 79-65 Jan.30 when the Dukes were winless in A-10 play. Duquesne since has won four of six games and gotten starting center Simplice Njoya (11.5 ppg) back from a 19-game NCAA suspension. The 6-foot-10 Cameroon native led the Dukes with 17 points in his return Tuesday at LaSalle.

        “We're real pleased with everything that's going on,” Dukes coach Danny Nee said. “We're making shots, playing defense, getting better.”

        The Dukes are 7-4 at home and have no starter smaller than 6-4.

        “People said all they were missing was a post player, and now they've got the big kid (Njoya) back,” Matta said.

        With a No.26 RPI Saturday, XU is in great NCAA Tournament shape. As long as it takes care of business this week.

        “We said we wanted to be in a position where we controlled our destiny, and we've done that,” Matta said. “Now we need to finish strong.”

        XU CLINCHES:

        Losses Saturday by Dayton and Richmond mean XU can do no worse than share the A-10 West crown, its first title since 1998. It is assured a first-round bye in the A-10 Tournament.

        XU needs to win two of its final three games to secure the No.1 overall seed, which earns the earliest quarterfinal (noon March 7) and the maximum opportunity for rest.


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- XU seeks end to road doldrums
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