Monday, March 18, 2002

Appreciation may come later

        DALLAS — When the door to their dressing room finally opened, the Xavier Musketeers were as still as statues. With shoulders slumped and heads bowed, they sat in silence, mourning the end of their season. Some draped towels over their heads to hide the anguish on their faces. Others stared vacantly at a blank white board in the front of the room.

        “It hurts a lot,” senior Alvin Brown explained. “It's hard to give up what you love.”

Keith Jackson, Lionel Chalmers and David Young watch time run out.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        The Muskies didn't look like a team with nothing to lose Sunday. Instead, they looked like a team that had lost everything. They had been outmanned, outplayed and ultimately outscored by mighty Oklahoma, 78-65, but their postgame postures suggested they had been ambushed by an ant.

        “We were where we wanted to be,” XU coach Thad Matta said. “We just couldn't get over the hump.”

        This is the way it works in sports. Coaches and athletes can appreciate probability, but they tend to dwell on defeats — particularly season-ending defeats — as if the fates had simply frowned on their earnest endeavors. They lament the move too slowly made, the shot too quickly taken and construct all sorts of scenarios that could have led to a happier ending.

        Most of the time, it's a fruitless exercise. Sunday, though, it was inescapable.

Oklahoma's Aaron McGhee shoots over David West.
(AP photo)
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        With 11:35 remaining, the Muskies had played the second-seeded Sooners to a statistical standstill. Twice, XU guard Lionel Chalmers had stepped to the free-throw line and routinely sank two shots to tie the game. Now, with the clock stopped and the score tied at 49-49, the game was every bit as up for grabs as a bride's bouquet. Enter Aaron McGhee, bouquet hog.

        The ponderous power forward who slipped from Bob Huggins' grasp returned to the game after a short breather and rapidly restored order for Oklahoma. In three muscular minutes, McGhee triggered a nine-point run that created the hump Xavier couldn't climb.

        The Muskies left American Airlines Center Sunday convinced they had been beaten by their own errors as much as they were by Oklahoma's excellence. During his postgame news conference, Matta recounted the mistakes that allowed for Oklahoma's surge with clinical specificity, as if all the points had been as much the product of Xavier's blunders as McGhee's brilliance.

Thad Matta runs up the sideline.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Following the timeout, Oklahoma ran what Matta described as a “UCLA cut into a ball screen,” a maneuver, in this instance, that left McGhee open underneath against the more modestly built Chalmers.

        Chalmers was compelled to foul, McGhee was able to make both of his free throws, and the Sooners went ahead to stay.

        Despite Oklahoma's superior bulk, Xavier grabbed more rebounds and produced more points inside. The Muskies' Romain Sato led all scorers with 28 points. West blocked five Sooner shots in addition to his 18 points and eight rebounds.

        The Sooners prevailed by protecting the ball. They committed only six turnovers (to Xavier's 17), none after the Muskies tied the game at 49-49.

        “I don't know if they were afraid of our defense,” Matta said, “but they really simplified what they do.”

        If Oklahoma changed its game to beat Xavier, this is a credit to Matta's team. But if the Muskies took any solace from this Sunday, it sure didn't show.

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