Tough guys win tough games, and you’d be hard pressed to find a guy tougher than Paul Scruggs. In his final Shootout in Xavier colors, he was the steady hand Xavier needed at the till, finishing with 20/5/5 on 6-10/0-2/8-8 shooting and only turning the ball over twice against a hounding Cincinnati defense.
Scruggs set the tone early for Xavier. On a night when the Muskies drivers were irrepressible going to the rim, it was Scruggs leading from in front from the opening tap. Before the first media timeout, he had scored two layups and earned three free throws by refusing to be turned back when he put the ball on the deck. He and Keith Williams (18/6/3) each had 7 in the first 5 minutes, but it was Xavier who was up when the game hit commercials.
Chris Vogt (8/1/2) was owning the paint early on as Zach Freemantle (16/9/0, 4 TO) struggled to find a rhythm all day, but Xavier’s new depth showed as Colby Jones (5/4/3) cashed out a little jumper one trip down and then found Adam Kunkel (6/0/0) for a corner three the next, swelling Xavier’s lead to 5, the largest the margin would be either way in the first half. UC battled back, though, as Xavier began to settle for jumpers and the Bearcats found a bit of an offensive rhythm. With 1:43 left in the half, Xavier was down 35-31.
It wouldn’t last. Paul Scruggs found Adam Kunkel unmarked in the corner again, and his lightning footwork and quick release cut the lead to 1. The next time down, UC couldn’t be bothered to pick up Nate Johnson (10/3/2) at all, and he dribbled into maybe the most open three of his entire basketball career. At the half, Xavier led 37-35.
X scuffled out of the break, and Rapolas Ivanauskas (10/6/0) briefly became the story on both ends, taking advantage of some slack defense to cash out on a couple of threes but also giving Xavier their first points of the half by getting a tech for yelling at Zach Freemantle. The teams exchanged runs, as UC ran out 9-2 to open the half, then Xavier answered with a 10-2 run of their own to go back up 3.
You have to wonder if an arena full of fans might have made a difference in the momentum early in the half as Cincinnati had its best chance to take control of the game, but there’s a pandemic on and Xavier maintained composure in front of an impassive crowd of cardboard cutouts. Some of the life even came out of the game, as the teams went for more than four minutes with a single made field goal between them until a Bryan Griffin (6/5/0) layup with 11:21 left put Xavier ahead 53-51. An 11-5 run from Cinci followed, at with 7:13 left, the Bearcats led by four and looked to be flirting with taking the game to the line.
When pucker time hit, Travis Steele had to decide whom to trust, and he went with his starters. Except for a little bit of a cameo by Colby Jones, Coach Steele went more or less exclusively with Odom, Scruggs, Johnson, Carter, and Freemantle to bring the game home, and they responded.
First Jason Carter (6/2/2, 0 TO) cashed out on a three from the top of the key from a Scruggs assist to cut the deficit to 1. After Keith Williams missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Paul Scruggs drove the other way to take the lead for Xavier. With 5:39 left, that was the last lead change in a game that had gone back and forth all day.
From there on out, it was a question of execution, and Xavier rose to the challenge. In the last 5:04 as they tried to protect their lead and Cinci tried to battle back, Xavier hit 10-12 from the line and never turned the ball over. Coach Steele consistently trusted senior Paul Scruggs and freshman Dwon Odom with the ball, and they consistently repaid that trust with good decisions, namely relentlessly getting into the middle of the defense. Odom has explosive athleticism; Scruggs has patient, persistent handle, a deep bag, and almost comical wingspan. As they demonstrated coolly during winning time, Cincinnati had no answer for either of them.
This game answered a lot of questions fans have had about the Muskies this season. Against a team that forced turnovers on 28% of opponent possessions and crushed the glass their only other game, Xavier had 12 turnovers in 72 possessions and held their own on the defensive boards. Colby Jones, Adam Kunkel, and CJ Wilcher provided some newfound and needed depth, Bryan Griffin continued to clobber the glass and score effectively in limited time, and Jason Carter made winning plays down the stretch.
I’m not sure this is a style of game that Xavier would have won in the past couple of years. Against a defense trying to force solo ball and bad shots, Xavier was relentless in not settling and keeping the ball hot. Against a defense adept at forcing turnovers, Xavier didn’t allow themselves to get sped up or out of control. This was a mature, balanced performance led by a game ball winning performance by Paul Scruggs.
It also should, for the moment, calm the calls for Travis Steele’s job. Paul Scruggs, Nate Johnson, and Jason Carter are all integral parts of this team and all seniors. Past them, though, Zach Freemantle is a sophomore and Dwon Odom is a freshman. Adam Kunkel still has two years of eligibility beyond this season, Bryan Griffin has one. The non-transfers off the bench were Kyky Tandy (sophomore), Colby Jones (freshman), and CJ Wilcher (freshman). Ben Stanley, still in transfer waiver purgatory, has at least two years of ball in a Xavier uniform ahead of him.
I think we finally got a glimpse of the direction Coach Steele wants to take this program. Around the core of three seniors, there is depth and talent in guys who still have multiple seasons ahead of the at Xavier. The Muskies run the city for another year, and they’re well positioned to run it for many years to come.