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Saturday, December 31, 2011
Rapid Reaction: Gonzaga 72, Xavier 65

By Eamonn Brennan

CINCINNATI -- An assortment of quick thoughts on Gonzaga's 72-65 win over Xavier (Skyline Chili not included):

Overview: The biggest question entering this game was whether Xavier could recover from its post-brawl malaise, and whether a return home with a full lineup would be what this team needed to overcome three straight losses to Oral Roberts, Long Beach State and Hawaii. (XU beat Southern Illinois in its final game at the Diamond Head Classic last week, but that hardly counts.) That was the presumed storyline, anyway.

Instead, over the course of the game, one had to be more impressed with Gonzaga. The Zags traveled halfway across the country -- as is their wont -- and played a true road game against a good (if struggling) team in front of a sellout crowd of 10,000 strong. Every time the Musketeers looked likely to get back in the game, every time star Tu Holloway looked likely to take over, Gonzaga made one big shot after another.

The biggest shot of the game came from freshman guard Kevin Pangos, who salvaged an ugly offensive possession with a crossover 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 2:23 left in the second half. Xavier was on the verge of a comeback at that point, having cut the lead to 63-59, but Pangos' 3 put the Zags up by seven, and the Musketeers couldn't close the gap in the final 120 seconds.

Star of the game: Gonzaga forward Sam Dower -- who posted 20 points and 10 rebounds on 7-of-11 from the field -- showed up in a major way Saturday night, notching key bucket after key bucket as Gonzaga sought to maintain its lead in the second half. Dower was particularly excellent in Gonzaga's run to a 54-47 lead early in the second half, in which he scored 12 of his team's 14 points over a four-minute-stretch. Dower did a little bit of everything on the offensive end, most of it on screen-and-roll plays, and his consistent jump shooting from 15 to 18 feet made it difficult for Xavier to halt Gonzaga's incessant screen-and-roll action. He even hit two 3s on the night, tying his season mark to date. Impressive stuff.

Stat of the game: Three-of-18. That was Xavier's mark from beyond the arc Saturday night -- a figure that cost Chris Mack's team numerous chances to cut into Gonzaga's ever-present lead. Basketball can be a pretty simple game. You have to make shots. The Musketeers didn't, and that's why they lost. In fact, given how poorly they shot, it's a minor miracle the game was so close. Just one of those nights.

Entertaining halftime miscellany: Xavier's halftime entertainment -- a males versus females game of Simon Says including kids, adults and Xavier students  -- was a first for me. At first, I poked a little fun on Twitter at the purveyor of said game, some overenthusiastic dude named Steve Max. But I have to admit it was pretty entertaining. The highlight came when the two finalists -- a college-aged woman and a kid about 10 years old or so -- were told to "shake it." The dancing was all standard, boilerplate stuff, until the 10-year-old kid busted out an absolutely picture-perfect worm. The crowd erupted in approval. Simon Says! Who knew?

What's next: Gonzaga travels back to its West Coast home to dive into its WCC schedule with two upcoming home dates versus Pepperdine and Santa Clara before traveling to rival Saint Mary's on Jan. 12. Xavier, meanwhile, kicks off A-10 play with two road games in three days (Jan. 4 at La Salle, Jan. 7 at Fordham).