Monday, March 24, 2003

Daugherty: Xavier realized too late it could win

West a winner overall

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - David West was fading away, literally and otherwise. He'd get the ball down low, in good position, with the familiar two defenders deep into his shirt. And he would lean backwards, like an offensive lineman being bull-rushed, and launch a short jumper that, six times out of eight, missed.

Xavier's national Player of the Year candidate looked like he was practicing the limbo. He was a first-half metaphor for his whole shellshocked team.

It wasn't West's fault his career ended sooner than the Selection Committee figured. He brought Xavier back in the second half almost by himself. But you will not beat the defending national champion, a team starting four seniors, by playing 20 good minutes, so the third-seeded Musketeers went home 13-point losers to sixth-seeded Maryland.

"So much of March becomes mental," Thad Matta decided after the game. By the time the Musketeers knew they could beat Maryland, they couldn't. The Terrapins never had a doubt.

"Those guys play with confidence," Matta said. "I watched (Steve) Blake the other night with five seconds to go, they're down (by one) and he's looking like, hey, we're going to win this thing, when do we play on Sunday? I think that's huge in March." The Xavier coach was talking about the Terps' senior point, who in the first half Sunday carved up the Muskies like Thanksgiving turkey.

"He was just standing out there firing it into guys for dunks," West said.

Maryland trailed 5-0 and then it led 45-28 at half. Blake jetted past Dedrick Finn like Finn was runway and Blake was 757. Because of him, it looked like Maryland was playing Sunday's game on Monday. Xavier was stuck on Saturday afternoon.

And Dave West was shooting fadeaways. "Do you think you gave Maryland too much credit in the first half?" I asked West.

"Yeah," he said. "Probably."

The Terrapins had the better players by inches, but the more confident ones by miles. That's miles, not Myles, as in XU junior center Anthony, who looked like the largeness of the occasion swallowed him whole.

The Muskies might not have believed they were in over their heads, but they played that way. Maryland expected to win. Xavier hoped it would.

When the Muskies made a gutsy charge that cut the lead to 60-57 with 6:06 to play, Maryland scored the next five times it had the ball. After that, Xavier was too gassed to make things compelling. "I'm proud of the guys," West said later. "They fought hard. It's all I can really ask."

After the game, West skipped the handshake line. He couldn't stand to watch somebody else's winning going on in his last college game. Unless you thought XU would win the national title, it had to end this way for West, sooner or later. He is the best player in school history, and comes as close as you'll get these days to meeting the student-athlete myth/ideal.

He has his degree, three conference player of the year awards and the boy-to-man maturity that comes with four years of college well spent. He has won.

Only on Sunday, he didn't. "Gonna get big," West said, when someone wondered how he'd be spending his days until graduating in May. He'll hit the weight room to beef up for the NBA grind, and West knows that's exactly what it will be. "At this level, it's pure," he said. "We're playing to get to the Sweet 16. In the NBA, they're playing for paychecks. The emotion isn't as strong. But life has to go on."

Maybe not as sweetly for David West, who enjoyed college. The last game didn't go his way. The four years might have compensated for that.



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