With a sell-out crowd of 10, 353 for the Pirates final home game of the 2015-16 season, the team handled business against no. 5 Xavier for a 90-81 upset victory.
Senior Day at The Rock started off by honoring Derrick Gordon, and the defensive specialist did not disappoint. Scoring a modest eight points, the guard pitched in six rebounds and a steal. But Gordon was truly heard with his wing defense against Xavier guards Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis.
Head coach Kevin Willard knew Gordon was as good as advertised on defense.
“I envisioned the impact on the defensive end, I really did,” Willard said. “Just from all the film we watched on him. I was excited because I thought we were really bringing in someone who could change our dynamic defensively.”
The rest of the core cast did all they could to propel the Pirates to the resume stamping win they lacked heading into Selection Sunday. Desi Rodriguez posted a career high 27 points to go along with 12 rebounds and a few rim-rocking dunks. Isaiah Whitehead (22 points, five assists) posted his second straight game with four blocks. Angel Delgado (17 points, eight rebounds) controlled the paint for the Pirates to level out the offense.
The sophomore wing, Rodriquez, has flourished in the role switch to the small forward position this season.
“I just feel like I took a big jump since last year,” Rodriguez said. “Coach (Willard) kind of limited my game because he wanted me to play where they needed me, so I kind of took the role at the 4 spot. But definitely me at the 3 spot, my rightful position, it’s definitely paying off so well for me. I appreciate Coach (Willard) for doing that.”
Whitehead, who shot 5-for-15 from the field, struggled early on before letting his defense spark momentum to his offensive game. Willard knew his star guard just had to step up on the defensive end, and his offensive game would follow.
“It’s huge for him, because it kind of gets him going,” Willard said. “Again, if you look at the 40-footer he made, the pull-up three he made – I think it was back-to-back – it was after he got two deflections. He had gotten a steal, he had gotten a rebound, he had gotten a block. So, for him, when he gets it going that way on defense, I don’t think there’s a better player in the country.”
Musketeer forward James Farr inflicted the most damage to the Pirates in the teams Jan. 23 meeting, scoring 24 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. This afternoon however, Farr was kept in check, scoring 17 points and notching only eight rebounds.
Defense was key for the Pirates today, as they held the Musketeers to 39 percent shooting from the floor. Xavier did not lead for a second in the entire game, holding a tie with the Pirates for the first 15 seconds of the contest before the Hall bolted to a 9-0 lead.
Xavier head coach Chris Mack did not expect the same type of offensive output from his team heading into today’s Newark meeting.
“They’ve got a top 20 defensive team, statistically. We knew that coming in.” Mack said.
The Musketeer lead man also had some flattering words for the team that upended his no. 5 ranked group heading into the postseason.
“A tournament team in my opinion. They’re really good.”
The Pirates head to Indianapolis Wednesday, Mar. 2 for their rematch with Butler. Tip-off for that game is 8:30 p.m. ET.
Dennis Chambers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DennisChambers_