- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) - Semaj Christon waited for it.

Xavier’s top scorer was locked on Providence’s top scorer with less than a minute left. When Bryce Cotton made a move off the dribble, Christon snatched the ball away and decided the game.

Christon scored 12 points and made two pivotal defensive plays in the final minute Saturday, leading Xavier to a 59-53 victory that ended the Musketeers’ three-game losing streak and ended their run of sloppy defensive performances.

“We had to prove to ourselves that we were a better defensive team,” said center Matt Stainbrook, who had 13 points and nine rebounds. “You have to want it more than everyone out there.”

Xavier (16-7, 6-4) wore its special gray home uniforms to snap out of the slump and take third place in the Big East. The streak started with an 82-72 loss at Providence on Jan. 25.

“We’ve been working extremely hard in regaining an identity,” coach Chris Mack said. “It disintegrated a little bit when our offense was firing on all cylinders (earlier in the season). I told our team if we can play at a very high level at both ends of the floor, then we’ve really got something special. It’s easier said than done.”

Christon had his fingerprints all over this one.

He made a free throw with 59 seconds left, then had a steal and a deflection that led to another turnover by the Friars (16-8, 6-5), who saw their top scorer shut down in the second half. Cotton is second in the Big East with 21.3 points per game, but managed only two after halftime.

Cotton finished with nine points on 4-of-11 shooting, his second-lowest total of the season. Josh Fortune had 17 points, one shy of his career high.

“They gave me a lot of attention, like most teams do, but it didn’t affect our game plan,” Cotton said. “I made a couple of bonehead plays, so I take some of the blame.”

Justin Martin added 13 points for Xavier, including a pair of free throws with 27.6 seconds left.

Xavier opened the game with a 10-5 run capped by Christon’s fast break layup, its biggest lead of the first half. There were seven ties and six lead changes in the half, with both teams shooting poorly at the outset.

Fortune had a pair of layups and a 3-pointer during a 9-2 spurt that gave Providence its biggest lead at 32-27. The Friars led 32-31 at halftime behind Fortune’s 12 points. Cotton and Christon each had seven points in the half.

Five different players scored during an 11-3 run that put Xavier ahead to stay 42-37 early in the second half. Xavier made four consecutive shots, and Martin had a three-point play during the spurt.

Fortune kept the Friars in it, hitting a 3-pointer and a pull-up jumper that gave him 17 points with 13:53 left. He wouldn’t score again.

The Musketeers’ balance helped them hold the lead. Stainbrook’s putback made it 54-48 with 8:21 to go.

Both teams missed close-up shots down the stretch. Xavier went more than 7 minutes without a field goal, missing eight consecutive shots. LaDontae Henton had a putback and made one of two free throws with 1:22 to go, cutting the lead to 54-53.

Christon countered by making one of his two free throws, and then decided it with his defense. He stripped the ball from Cotton and passed to Isaiah Philmore for a basket that made it 57-53 with 42.9 seconds left.

“On the steal, I just kind of read it,” Christon said. “He had kept going to the move every time he came off a screen.”

Christon also deflected Cotton’s pass the next time down the floor, with Dee Davis getting the loose ball.

“If you told me I can coach a game with the ball down one in an environment like this, I’ll take it every single night,” coach Ed Cooley said. “I want who is the most dynamic player in the Big East (Cotton) with the ball in that situation. Credit Xavier. They were able to capitalize on our mistakes.”

Xavier freshman forward Jalen Reynolds checked in midway through the first half. Reynolds had been suspended for the last two games while he took care of off-court matters. He played 11 minutes and had two points and five rebounds.


Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoekay

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