NEW ORLEANS — After a stunning loss to crosstown rival Dillard in the quarterfinals of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference tournament, the Xavier men’s basketball team had two weeks to right the ship before Thursday night, when it plays Faulkner (Ala.) in the first round of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
The Gold Rush fell to Dillard 59-56 in the GCAC quarterfinals on Feb. 28, a disheartening loss after tying Philander Smith for the regular-season conference title and following a 70-46 trouncing of Dillard in XU’s regular-season finale.
XU senior forward and captain Denzell Erves said his squad lost its composure against the Bleu Devils in the conference tourney, but since then, the Gold Rush has regained its footing and is now focused on Faulkner. Game time is 9:45 p.m. Thursday at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
“We responded (to the loss) very quickly,” Erves said. “We understand the reason we lost that game, and we’ve corrected those mistakes in practice. We just fell apart as a team (against Dillard), and we can’t let that happen anymore. Now we’re all on the same page, and we know what we have to do.”
The Rush enters the NAIA tournament ranked No. 16 in the country and carries a 24-7 record and the 15th seed in the tourney.
Faulkner is unseeded after posting a mark of 28-5, but it finished the regular season ranked just two spots behind Xavier in the NAIA final top 25 poll. XU didn’t play Faulkner during the regular season.
Gold Rush coach Dannton Jackson said his squad will definitely be faced with a tough challenge in the Eagles, but he believes his team’s corps of six seniors have found the right chemistry to guide the team deep into the national tournament, which largely takes place in Kansas City, including the March 19 title game.
“I’m really excited about our group,” Jackson said. “We’re excited to be on the way to Kansas City.”
Like Erves, Jackson realized after the GCAC tourney upset that the Rush had to work on several key facets of the game, not the least of which was mentally erasing the memory of the disappointment from the players’ minds.
“It was unfortunately a disappointing loss,” Jackson said. “But we’ve been able to work out the kinks, and we’re grateful to be given another chance to play on the national stage.
“Our team is very focused,” he added. “We made some mistakes, and we’ve had to solve some of them. Our guys really know our game plan, and they’re excited to be given another chance.”
Jackson said the Gold Rush’s strength is its suffocating defense, which he said has been playing extremely well, even in the Dillard defeat, and the defense will have to keep up its stalwart play.
On offense, Xavier must solve Faulkner’s stiff zone defense, something the Rush will try to do by aggressively attacking the hoop, Erves said.
He added that the squad is drawing inspiration from the program’s history of success in reaching the NAIA tourney 15 times.
The Rush knows it has a tradition to uphold. The Rush has been to three consecutive national tourneys and eight in the past decade.
“We all sat down and talked about what we’ve done the last few years,” Erves said. “We have to stick to our game plan, run our offense and be patient, and everything else will work itself out.”