I always love going to early afternoon games at Rose Hill Gym. When the sun shines through the windows on the one end of the court, it feels like church to me. And well it should, since Rose Hill is on the campus of Fordham University, a Jesuit catholic school.
Fordham's opponent on Saturday was Xavier, another Jesuit catholic school. At one time Xavier was undefeated and highly ranked. Then came the game against crosstown rival Cincinnati and the well-publicized brawl at the end of the game. Since then, the Musketeers have lost five of their last six games. Call it karma or call it penance for what transpired on December 10, but the basketball season has humbled Xavier for their transgression. The Musketeers had to be desperate to find their groove again.
Xavier would have to find its groove in a packed gym. This is due in large part to the renaissance of Fordham basketball led by Head Coach Tom Pecora. In his second year, Pecora had the Rams at 7-7 entering the game and they have wins over Georgia Tech and nationally-ranked Harvard, which was their first win over a nationally-ranked team since 1978. When Pecora's name was mentioned at the end of the Fordham introductions, the crowd gave him hearty applause.
A .500 record may not seem like a good record. But considering they had seven wins all of last season and were 2-26 two seasons ago, a .500 record is significant improvement. And the fans have taken notice as they filled Rose Hill to the brim, selling out the 3,200 seat gym, which is filled with many historic NIT and NCAA banners that date back to the forties. They wanted to see if the Rams could add another notch in the win column at the expense of the struggling Musketeers.
The game started out with Fordham taking a quick 5-2 lead. But Xavier responded as Mark Lyons scored ten straight points in a row for the Musketeers, the last of which was a three-pointer that put them up 12-9. It was all the points Lyons would score in the first half.
The game would remain close for the next five minutes. The Rams' Alberto Estwick hit a three pointer that made the score 23-22 Xavier with less than seven and a half minutes to go. But the Musketeers responded with a 11-1 run capped by a Dezmine Wells dunk that made the score 34-23 Xavier. With three and half minutes left, Fordham called timeout.
The Rams were having difficulty scoring inside as Xavier's Kenny Frease's size was causing problems for Fordham's leading scorer on the season, Chris Gaston. Frease doesn't possess much leaping ability and during the second half, he missed an easy dunk because he could barely get off the ground. That resulted in a Xavier fan sitting near me yelling "How can you miss that? You're seven-foot-twelve!" But Frease's seven-foot, two hundred seventy-pound frame made it difficult for the six-foot-seven Gaston to shoot over him.
Thus Fordham would have to depend on their guards and their outside shooting. Enter sophomore Branden Frazier. Frazier nailed a three-pointer to cut the deficit to 34-26. Then late in the half, he cut the lead even further with a three-point play. Instead of being up by double digits, Xavier entered the half only up by five, 35-30. The Rose Hill crowd gave Fordham a standing ovation as they left for the locker room at halftime.
But the Rams couldn't carry the momentum over to start the second half. They got outscored by the Musketeers 13-1 over the first six and a half minutes. Xavier was up 48-34 and the large Musketeer fan contingent by where I was sitting was reveling in the moment. And one Xavier fan brought a sign that said "Zip Em Up", which was in reference to the infamous quote by Tu Holloway after the brawl with Cincinnati. But Frazier refused to let Fordham fade away. He scored twelve of Fordham's next nineteen points and with a little less than four minutes left, the Rams were down only seven, 60-53. The Rose Hill crowd was rocking with loud chants of "DE-FENSE."
The Rams continued to chip away at Xavier's lead as they got it down to five points, 62-57, with a little less than two minutes left. But the Musketeers would not relinquish the lead any further. Lyons, who scored another ten points in the second half, hit two key free throws late down the stretch, and Xavier held off Fordham 67-59.
Frazier led all scorers with twenty-two points. Freshman Bryan Smith added twelve points for Fordham. Gaston only scored ten points, six less than his season average, on only three of eleven shooting. Lyons had twenty points for Xavier and Wells added thirteen. The most amazing stat was that Holloway, Xavier's leading scorer on the season with eighteen points per game, was held scoreless and only had three field goal attempts.
A year ago, I watched Richmond, a similarly talented team to Xavier, play Fordham at Rose Hill Gym. The eventual Sweet Sixteen Spiders thoroughly outclassed the Rams 77-60. A year later, the Rams gave the Musketeers all they could handle. Though I am sure the Fordham fans went home disappointed, they could hold their heads high. The team will be more competitive in the Atlantic 10 over the next couple of months. Also, Frazier, Smith and Gaston will all be back next season.
The rebuilding process is coming along just fine. And in time, the Rose Hill parishioners will be leaving many weekend afternoon and weekday evening masses with winning smiles on their faces.
XAVIER 67, at FORDHAM 59 01/07/2012
XAVIER 10-5 (1-1) -- A. Walker 3-8 1-1 7; T. Holloway 0-3 0-0 0; D. Wells 5-9 2-4 13; M. Lyons 7-12 3-3 20; K. Frease 2-8 5-6 9; B. Redford 2-6 2-2 8; T. Taylor 2-4 2-6 6; D. Davis 0-2 0-0 0; J. Martin 1-3 0-0 2; J. Robinson 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 23-56 15-22 67. FORDHAM 7-8 (0-2) -- C. Gaston 3-11 4-6 10; B. Smith 4-9 1-2 12; K. Bristol 2-3 2-2 6; B. Frazier 9-20 2-3 22; D. McMillan 0-3 2-7 2; A. Estwick 2-5 0-0 5; M. Dominique 0-2 0-0 0; L. Samuell 0-0 2-2 2; R. Canty 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-53 13-22 59.
Three-point goals: XU 6-15 (A. Walker 0-1; T. Holloway 0-1; M. Lyons 3-5; B. Redford 2-6; J. Martin 0-1; D. Wells 1-1), FORD 6-13 (A. Estwick 1-2; B. Frazier 2-6; B. Smith 3-5); Rebounds: XU 41 (A. Walker 14), FORD 28 (K. Bristol 8); Assists: XU 18 (A. Walker 5), FORD 11 (D. McMillan 5); Total Fouls -- XU 22, FORD 19; Fouled Out: XU-None; FORD-None.