What would have been the most significant win in coach Marty Marbach's tenure at Canisius College turned into a near miss Saturday night.
After leading Xavier University almost the entire game, the Golden Griffins watched their upset bid unravel in the final three minutes and dropped a 62-59 decision.
Xavier, considered one of the top 50 college basketball programs in the country, outscored the Griffs, 13-4, over the final four minutes as Canisius hit a cold spell at the worst possible time.
Canisius made just five of their last 25 shots to spoil an otherwise excellent effort.
"It's a really disappointing loss considering we put ourselves in a position to win against a very good team," said Marbach.
"Our players executed the game plan perfectly. We got a good tempo going and a good defensive effort. We got the ball into the hands of the people who we wanted to take the shots during our cold spell but the ball just didn't go."
Xavier coach Pete Gillen, who has taken the Musketeers to the NCAA Tournament five straight years, was happy to escape. "It wasn't pretty and we made 8,000 mistakes, but we found a way to win," Gillen said. "Our kids showed a lot of character."
To the surprise of much of the crowd of 2,164, the Griffs controlled the first half and held a 33-23 lead at intermission.
Canisius had little difficulty handling Xavier's full-court pressure and ran its offense with uncommon efficiency, thanks in large part to Nixon Dyall.
The 6-foot-7 junior, who looks like he will be a major contributor this year, scored 16 points in the first half.
After Canisius opened a 14-point lead early in the second half, the momentum started to shift.
Xavier tightened its man-to-man defense, continued its full-court pressure and was able to quicken the pace of the game.
On a number of occasions, Canisius made turnovers trying to convert three-on-two advantages after breaking the press.
Marbach said he wanted his team to play aggressively.
"We wanted our team to play to win instead of playing not to lose," he said. "As it turned out, we probably should have pulled the ball out a couple of times. . . . But we were concerned about not being tentative."
A bigger problem, however, was simply missed open shots.
In particular, center Ed Book was 1 for 8 from the field in the second half, and shooting guard Joe McCarthy was 0 for 5.
The Griffs still held a six-point lead, 55-49, with 4:27 left.
That's when Xavier went on an 11-0 run to take a 50-55 lead with 53 seconds left. Canisius made four turnovers and missed two shots in that stretch.
After Book hit two free throws with 36 seconds left, Canisius got a turnover and had a chance to tie with a three-point shot. But the Griffs missed two well-defended shots and Xavier gained possession.
Xavier hit one free-throw, and a turnover by McCarthy on the Griffs' next possession with 15 seconds left all but sealed it.
Cold shooting and defense dominated the game, as both teams shot 34 percent from the field. Xavier was held to 26 percent in the first half. Canisius was held to 25 percent in the second.
Dyall was 9 of 11 from the field and finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds.
"I think we had a great effort," Dyall said. "We weren't intimidated by them."
Book, 3 of 13 shooting, had 12 points and 10 rebounds. He provided the highlight of the first half, taking a touch pass from Harry Seymour, rolling down the lane and slam-dunking over two Musketeers to the delight of the crowd. It game Canisius a 24-18 lead at the time.
Despite some untimely second-half turnovers Canisius got good play from its point guards. Rod Brown and Binky Johnson combined for just four turnovers.
Xavier got 16 points from 6-4 swingman Michael Davenport.