CINCINNATI (AP) — When Xavier went to Butler for a game in mid-December, the Musketeers knew a win over the 21st-ranked Bulldogs would probably lift them back into the Top 25, where they've spent most of their time in recent years.
That didn't work out. They lost on a final shot upheld despite a clock malfunction.
A few weeks later, they were on the cusp again, needing a win at Wake Forest to get that final push toward the rankings. They lost in double overtime.
It was appropriate, then, that they finally made it back after another thriller.
The Musketeers' 78-76, double-overtime win over then-No. 23 Richmond on Sunday provided that long-awaited boost back into the rankings. Xavier (21-7, 12-2 Atlantic 10) moved up to No. 25 on Monday, essentially taking Richmond's spot.
"The team has definitely talked about it," senior Jason Love said Monday. "At certain points of the year, we were right there at getting ranked and lost a tough one. It's definitely a great mark for your season. We're just glad to be at the top of the Atlantic 10 and controlling our own destiny."
The win over Richmond came in what amounted to an elimination game for the regular-season A-10 title. The Musketeers, the Spiders and No. 20 Temple were tied atop the conference with two losses apiece heading into their games Sunday. Xavier and Temple won, making it a two-team race.
The Owls finish the season at Saint Louis (10-4) and against George Washington (6-8) at home. Xavier has a bit easier time, playing at Fordham (0-14) and home against St. Bonaventure (6-8). If they finished tied, Xavier and Temple would share the regular-season title, with the Owls' 77-72 win against Xavier on Jan. 20 breaking the tie for the Atlantic 10 tournament top seed.
It's a bit of a surprise that Xavier is in this position. The Musketeers have won the last three regular-season titles but lost three starters from a team that made it up to No. 7 last season. Dayton was picked to win the title, which became a source of motivation for the young Musketeers.
Xavier has secured a 20-win season for the 13th time in the last 14 years.
This has a distinction, though. No Xavier team has won 20 with fewer than two seniors, showing the importance of experience. Love is the only senior on the roster.
The youthfulness showed early in the season, when Xavier lost close games to Marquette, Baylor, Butler and Wake Forest. The tough nonconference schedule — Xavier is 12th in the latest RPI rankings — forced them to grow up in a hurry.
"Our team at the beginning of the year had a lot of inexperienced guys trying to come together as a team and improve," first-year coach Chris Mack said. "When people don't talk about you or talk about you negatively, it motivates you. It motivates you every day in practice. We do more of our work behind the scenes because we're not being talked about a whole lot. I think our kids kept after it and kept improving."
They're finishing strong. The Musketeers have won nine of their last 10 games, the only loss coming at Dayton on Feb. 6. They've won 31 consecutive Atlantic 10 games on their home court, the second-longest streak in league history. Temple won 34 in a row from 1987-91.
Xavier has won 23 straight home games overall, tied for the third-longest active streak along with Old Dominion.
A fourth straight Atlantic 10 championship would be noteworthy. Only Massachusetts has won so many in a row, stringing together five straight from 1992-96.
Cracking the Top 25 was an upbeat way for Xavier to start its final push toward another title and beyond.
"Again, it's not like we've reached the mountaintop," Mack said. "We have two games left in the regular season and then the best part of the season, the conference tournament and postseason tournament."