The third-seeded Xavier Musketeers will seeded St. Bonaventure Bonnies, who have title plans of their own, in the tournament championship game at Boardwalk Hall.
Xavier posted a 77-64 home win against St. Bonaventure in the only matchup between these two teams in the regular season. The Musketeers now hold a 24-15 all-time series edge against the Bonnies. .
St. Bonaventure has been an unlikely contender in the A-10 all season and has kept it rolling into the postseason. Despite going just 17-11 overall in the regular season the Bonnies earned the fourth seed in the conference over such teams as La Salle (21-12), Saint Joseph's (20-13) and Dayton (20-12) with a 10-6 mark in league play. The Bonnies notched another win against a team with a superior overall mark by holding off a late charge from eighth-seeded Massachusetts (22-11) in the semifinals, 84-80. The Bonnies have never won this event and are making their first appearance in the championship game since 2000.
A perennial powerhouse in the A-10, Xavier came into this season with lofty expectations yet again. After an infamous brawl with in-state rival Cincinnati early in the season, the Musketeers faltered time and time again. Xavier survived though, and has navigated the tournament field with wins over Dayton (70-69) and most recently, Saint Louis (71-64) in yesterday's semifinals. Xavier has four tournament titles to its credit and an impressive 25-12 tournament record. The Musketeers' last tourney crown came in 2006.
The Bonnies looked poised to cruise into Sunday's title game as they led by double digits late into the second half of their semifinal against UMass. St. Bonaventure then stumbled down the stretch and watched a 70-54 lead with 7:33 remaining shrink to just three points (80-77) with just under a minute left. Both teams then traded 1-for-2 efforts from the free-throw line and the score stood at 81-78 with 30 seconds left on the clock. UMass' Chaz Williams got himself to the charity stripe and brought the game to within one, 81-80, with 16 seconds left. On the Bonnies' next possession Charlon Kloof split a pair of free throws giving the Minutemen a chance to tie or win the game. Raphiael Putney missed a potential game winning three-pointer from the wing and the Bonnies got a pair of free throws to put the game out of reach.
Andrew Nicholson and Demetrius Conger beat up the Minutemen on the inside in the game combining for 41 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists. Conger (12.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) was most impressive, pouring in 22 points, bringing down 10 boards and handing out eight assists after he had only eight points in the quarterfinals against Saint Joseph's. Nicholson (18.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg) who was the conference's leading scorer this season, finished with 19 points and six boards. Nicholson has been sensational in the tournament through two rounds after a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double in the quarterfinals. Chris Johnson (6.5 ppg) gave the Bonnies a shot in the arm off the bench in the win, posting 14 points.
Xavier trailed for a good portion of the first half in the semifinals against Saint Louis but closed the period on a 12-2 run to take a 29-23 lead into the break. The Musketeers came out for the second half and behind the stellar play of Tu Holloway took control of the game. The Musketeers pushed their lead into double digits with a 12-4 spurt in the first few minutes of the second half, nine of which were scored by Holloway. The Billikens didn't go away and cut the lead to three a few times, the last time being when the score red 65-62 with just over a minute remaining. The Musketeers then went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final minute to seal the 71-64 victory.
Although his team struggled at times this season, Holloway has consistently been a strong performer for the Musketeers. The senior guard ended the season fifth in the league in scoring (16.9 ppg) and has also been very good in distributing the ball with the fourth best assist total (5.3 pg). Holloway toned down the passing in the semifinals but carried the team offensively by scoring 21 points for his third straight game with at least 20 points. Junior guard Mark Lyons (15.6 ppg) pairs with Holloway to form one of the better backcourt tandems in the conference and Division I overall. He filled that role nicely by scoring 14 points including two key three pointers in the semifinal win. Forward Dezmine Wells (10.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and bruising center Kenny Frease (9.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg) will be the Musketeers' answer to the frontcourt duo of Nicholson and Conger for St. Bonaventure. Wells is coming off an 18-point performance, while Frease scored nine points.