CINCINNATI - An overtime game for the story books -- and, potentially, one for an NCAA Tournament bid -- extended a streak of Xavier home-court dominance over longtime rival Dayton Saturday night.
Much more importantly, it revealed that Tu Holloway can still be Tu Holloway.
Xavier's senior point guard never left the floor in his team's 86-83 win Saturday night. Holloway scored 32 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and had 5 assists. He scored 13 points in the first half, put Xavier ahead in the final 11 seconds of regulation and scored his team's final 7 points of overtime.
Perhaps Xavier will roll on from here, or perhaps the gifted but puzzling Musketeers will continue to be maybe college basketball's biggest mystery. With Holloway leading the way, though, they have a chance not only to salvage probably the strangest season in school history but to reach at least some of the high expectations it had when it started.
If anything about this team is certain, it's this: Xavier (17-9, 8-4 Atlantic 10) is going to go as Holloway goes.
"As a player, I don't think in certain instances he's played to his expectations," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "Now I think he's truly energized.
"He had a great bounce to him tonight. I would look for him to have a big finish here to his senior year."
It says a lot about Holloway's talent that he entered Saturday's game averaging 16.6 points and 5.6 assists -- both fourth in the Atlantic 10 -- and would admit he's been searching for his A-game. Holloway was the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and a third-team All-American last year, when he averaged 19.7 points per game, and he returned for his senior year thinking bigger, on and individual and team levels.
Holloway didn't play well in Xavier's quick NCAA Tournament exit last year. His shot this season has abandoned him at times, and he's dealt with the aftermath of his role in instigating the now-infamous Dec. 10 fight with crosstown rival Cincinnati. Saturday night, he got back to being the guy who not only always had the ball for Xavier but the guy who scored it, in a variety of ways, and dominated a wild, draining game.
"For the older guys that were around before, you know you can't lose to Dayton," Holloway said. "It wasn't fun. If it was a regular A-10 game, it might have been more fun.
"I knew Coach Mack wanted the ball in my hands and I knew I had to deliver."
One two specific occasions -- with Dayton leading by one point with 25 seconds left in regulation and later when Xavier was protecting an overtime lead -- more than 10,000 fans in the Cintas Center knew that Holloway was getting the ball.
That, obviously, included both coaches. Dayton's Archie Miller tried to scheme around it.
"Easier said than done," Miller said.
On the opposite sideline, Mack was thinking of a counterpunch.
"There's not much doubt we're going to Tu, but at the same time the other team isn't dumb," Mack said. "You try to do it in ways they haven't seen before. put him in different spots."
Holloway delivered at the end of regulation as he did throughout the night, scoring on a driving layup that included a foul and the follow-up free throw. He followed up in overtime, too, with an off-balance 3-pointer and four clutch free throws. A career 85 percent free-throw shooter, he went 14-of-15 from the line Saturday night.
"We all know that Tu has done that time and time again," Miller said. "He was special at the end of game, special in overtime."
Xavier has now won 27 straight games over Dayton played in Cincinnati. The streak that's more important to the Musketeers, though, is their string of six straight NCAA Tournaments. Losing this one would have been a brutal blow to Xavier's at-large chances. Winning it strengthens what was already a pretty good but very complicated case.
Winning it by getting 32 from Holloway and 20 from his backcourt mate, Mark Lyons, shows part of the reason why this Xavier team was ranked No. 8, one spot off the highest ranking in school history, at the time of the fight.
"They can be as effective a guard tandem as there is in college basketball," Mack said. "They can be special if they continue to play together and play with the right attitude."
Mack and his staff took Holloway off the ball for much of Saturday night's game, something they feel can keep him rested and give him better scoring chances. They never took him off the floor, though, and they couldn't keep him off the floor in the fight for loose balls.
That's vintage Holloway, and using defense to create fast-break opportunities is a staple of Xavier's success. The Musketeers are experienced, athletic and dangerous. Senior forward Andre Walker said Xavier "is trying to get back to the way we used to play," and that's in attack mode.
"There's nothing wrong with (Holloway), nothing wrong with us," Walker said. "Tu carried us tonight."
Holloway didn't show much emotion during the game and even gestured to the crowd not to get too excited after he scored on a highlight-type spinning layup in the first half. But when Saturday night's game ended he took off his shoes and tossed them deep into the student section.
"We won a big game today so Xavier University will probably give me a new pair," he said. "They were getting old anyway."
Holloway is still a little different, still carrying a lot on his shoulders.
Delivering the way he did Saturday night means Xavier isn't done yet.