LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Just a few games into the season, it's clear 11th-ranked Xavier has some work to do closing out games. The Musketeers nearly let a 16-point second-half lead disappear, but Trevon Bluiett hit some clutch free throws late to help them pull away from Northern Iowa for a 67-59 victory in the Tire Pros Invitational championship game Sunday night.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Just a few games into the season, it's clear 11th-ranked Xavier has some work to do closing out games.
The Musketeers nearly let a 16-point second-half lead disappear, but Trevon Bluiett hit some clutch free throws late to help them pull away from Northern Iowa for a 67-59 victory in the Tire Pros Invitational championship game Sunday night.
The Panthers came within five points with 1:35 left while Xavier's offense struggled, but then the Musketeers (5-0) hit 9 of 10 free throws in the final 57 seconds. That stalled the rally by Northern Iowa, which seemed poised to overcome a double-digit deficit for the second time in as many games.
"I'd like to have those last four or five minutes back, but it's so early," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "We're a little bit better in terms of finishing the game, but we still have a ways to go in that department."
Bluiett converted 5 of 6 free throws after missing some critical shots earlier that helped open the door for the comeback attempt.
"We kind of base everything on a next-play mentality, so you can't really worry over the past plays," said Bluiett, who finished with a game-high 21 points. "My teammates do a good job of kind of helping me forget about that."
After going into halftime with the game tied 30-30, the Musketeers started the second strong with Bluiett and Edmond Sumner leading the way. Sumner scored 11 of his 17 points in the final 20 minutes.
But once the Panthers (3-1) found their rhythm against Xavier's 1-1-3 zone and man-to-man defense, the game began to turn late. Jordan Ashton and Klint Carlson hit some big shots to bring Northern Iowa back, but the Musketeers showed poise just in time to pull away.
"Sometimes you get into the game and teams are maybe not what they seem like on film, but Xavier is every bit as good and in some ways even better," UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. "We had a tremendous amount of respect for them even before this game and I've got more now because they have so many ways they can beat you, offensively everybody can make plays."
Now the two teams get to do it all over again when they meet Saturday at Xavier.
"Honestly, I'm pretty excited," Bluiett said. "They are good team and I think they are going to bring their A-game when they come back. They kind of have some motivation now and I think we will be ready for it, as well."
N. Iowa: The Panthers are great 3-point shooters, but their shots were not falling consistently against Xavier. Morgan was the only shooter to show up on Sunday.
Xavier: The Musketeers showed a variety of defenses to keep the Panthers off balance, switching from a 1-1-3 zone to man-to-man. Xavier has plenty of fire power on offense with J.P Macura and Quentin Goodin hitting big shots throughout the game.
Xavier: A win over previously unbeaten Northern Iowa could help the Musketeers' standing.
Xavier consistently sent double teams at Northern Iowa's Bennett Koch in the post in order to limit him, and it worked.
Koch was just 4 of 8 from the field for 11 points and turned the ball over six times in the paint.
UNI's Jeremy Morgan joined Bluiett and Macura on the all-tournament team along with Oklahoma's Jordan Woodard and Davidson's Jack Gibbs. Bluiett was the tournament MVP after scoring 56 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and getting seven assists over the three games. Morgan led UNI with 20 points in this one.
N. Iowa: The Panthers travel to Cincinnati to face Xavier again on Saturday.
Xavier: The Musketeers host Northern Iowa on Saturday.