Commentary

Xavier learns from past mistakes, and Holloway still learning

Updated: November 21, 2008, 3:24 AM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Moving into their seats for the postgame news conference, Derrick Brown filed to one end of the table and Terrell Holloway sat next to him in the middle seat.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Holloway
AP Photo/Al BehrmanTerrell Holloway is off to a fast start in his freshman season at Xavier.

Xavier coach Sean Miller looked down at Holloway and shook his head.

"That's my seat," he said. "Freshmen."

It was the only mistake Holloway made Thursday.

Holloway played 20 minutes against Missouri's frantic defense, committing just two turnovers but, more important, going 10-for-10 from the free throw line, including 6-of-6 in a pivotal 80-second stretch to help Xavier rally for a 75-71 win over Missouri in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

"This wasn't about basketball," Holloway said. "This was about toughness."

The Tigers like to call their game the "fastest 40 minutes in basketball," borrowing a theme from coach Mike Anderson's mentor, Nolan Richardson. Instead, the frenetic pace turned into the old Arkansas motto of 40 minutes of hell for Missouri. The Tigers forced 22 turnovers, set a tourney record with 16 steals and lost.

It would appear a statistical impossibility except for this: While Holloway calmly sunk freebie after freebie, Mizzou's two seniors, Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll, stole a page out of the Memphis "How To Shoot Free Throws" handbook. Combined, the duo went 8-for-17, all but erasing a seven-point Tigers lead.

"Me and Leo, we took that personally," Carroll said. "Our team is depending on us. But it was like we just couldn't stop the bleeding."

While the Tigers were hemorrhaging away a win, Xavier just might have found the permanent Band-Aid for its season.

The Musketeers put together a storybook season last year, winning 30 games and rolling to the Elite Eight for the second time in five years. Miller knew some things about his team wouldn't change. With Brown, C.J. Anderson and B.J. Raymond back, the Musketeers are strong in the frontcourt and relentless on the boards. They dusted Missouri 41-28 in rebounding to help negate the effect of all of those turnovers.

"We have to take advantage of our strength, and our strength is rebounding," said Brown, who -- finally feeling healthy after a tweaked ankle -- had 16 points and seven rebounds. "A rebound is a turnover for them."

[+] EnlargeB.J. Raymond
AP Photo/Andres LeightonB.J. Raymond and Xavier used timely free throw shooting to earn a win against Missouri.

But Miller was painfully unsure about his backcourt. Last season's Musketeers were solid everywhere but exceptional at one position. Point guard Drew Lavender ran the show like a mini general, dishing out 162 assists to just 61 turnovers all season.

Anyone who doubted his value got a quick reminder this season. In its first two games since Lavender's graduation, Xavier has committed 36 turnovers.

Double-whammied by the NCAA's declaring rookie Mark Lyons ineligible and not yet ruling on Indiana transfer Jordan Crawford's appeal for a waiver, Miller turned to a point by committee. He leaned on Dante Jackson, though the sophomore is more comfortable at the 2, tried sharpshooter Brad Redford and privately prayed that Holloway, a natural point, would come into his own.

Miller hoped that would happen in Puerto Rico, but when he saw his draw for the opening game here, he wasn't exactly excited.

Missouri is not the sort of team a young backcourt wants to cut its teeth on. Good teams struggle against its slap-happy defense that menaces every pass and rebound. Before the game tipped, even Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski joked that sitting courtside could be a dangerous proposition.

It didn't look good early with 12 first-half turnovers.

It didn't look good late when three turnovers in 36 seconds equated to seven Tiger points.

And it looked downright dire a minute later when Missouri stole yet another inbounds pass, sending Leo Lyons to the line.

He hit one of two, marking both the Tigers' biggest lead, 63-56, and the beginning of their demise in the form of Lyons and Carroll's Bataan Death March to the line.

"We're an attacking team, and that means we're going to get to the line often," Anderson said. "You've got to be able to put the ball in the hole."

Holloway did just that. Ranked among the nation's best point guards coming out of Harmony Community School in Cincinnati, Holloway always considered himself a good free throw shooter. He didn't have any rituals or antics, just stepped to the line and shot.

But when the preseason came around, Holloway went 2-of-6.

So now, before his first shot of every trip to the line, Holloway walks down the lane, grabs the ball from the official, gives it a good squeeze, flips it back and takes his position for his shot.

"I just wanted to touch the ball, to feel it," he said.

The laying on of hands proved just the miracle Xavier needed. Holloway swished two freebies with 1:21 left to give Xavier its first lead since the great unraveling and two more to put the Musketeers up, 73-70.

Up three with a handful of seconds to play -- for most schools, that's game over.

For Xavier, that's the stuff of nightmares.

In the 2007 NCAA tournament, upstart Xavier led Greg Oden and Ohio State 62-59 with 9.3 seconds left. Miller chose not to foul on the Buckeyes' possession and stood in stunned horror when Ron Lewis swished a 3-pointer between two defenders to send the game into overtime.

[+] EnlargeSean Miller
AP Photo/Andres LeightonSean Miller didn't hesitate to have his team foul and put Missouri at the line with Xavier up three points late.

Ohio State went on to win, 78-71, en route to the national championship game, and Miller went on to wait for the chance to redo his decision.

It came against Missouri.

Clinging to that 3-point lead, Miller didn't hesitate. He had Holloway foul Zaire Taylor. Taylor hit just one of two.

"I've been waiting a long time for that foul," Miller said. "It took 40 games for the chance to emerge but when it did, I knew what I would do. If we lost, I wanted to be able to say we lost a different way. We learned, we learned the hard way."

So did his rookie point guard. Don't expect to see Holloway in the middle seat anymore.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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