This was always going to be a more difficult task for Xavier than it would appear at first blush. Butler is not a good team this year and do not excel at the areas of the game where Xavier is weak, but 3 weeks is a long time to go without a game before going on the road to rekindle a rivalry. After looking like they were going to run away with this game, Xavier had to stem a Butler run and see the game out, which they did despite giving the Bulldogs every opportunity to get back in it.
It all looked to be roses for Xavier when Adam Kunkel (15/3/2) drilled the first shot of the game and set Xavier on course to a 13-8 lead before the first media timeout. The main catalyst besides Kunkel in Xavier’s fast start was the game’s star Paul Scruggs (24/7/3) who put on a performance reminiscent of Trevon Bluiett’s final visit to their hometown of Indianapolis, one in which he simply refused to let Xavier lose the game.
Things progressed in the same vein for much of the first half and when CJ Wilcher (5/0/0) and Nate Johnson (14/6/2) cashed out on back to back possessions to push the lead to 29-14, it looked like Xavier would barely be challenged by their ever accommodating hosts. Even when Butler summoned a fightback in the first half behind their own senior guard Aaron Thompson, they never cut the lead to single digits and Xavier ended the half in relative comfort up 12 knowing that if they could get Zach Freemantle (6/10/1) going they could win fairly comfortably.
Sadly, Freemantle never did get going, struggling to make a positive impact on both ends of the floor as Butler responded to Xavier’s early surge, which put them up 47-27, with a 13-0 run of their own to completely seize the momentum and put Xavier on the ropes with only a week of practice and conditioning behind them. The teams traded baskets as the game wore into the final quarter and from there Paul Scruggs was a man on a mission.
In the annals of Xavier history, there have been special players who took games over and bent them to their will when the chips were down. Their names are spoken with reverence and their exploits recounted during the brutal summer months when the major league baseball teams in Ohio make us long for our Musketeers. Tonight, Scruggs closed the game in a way worthy of mention among the Xavier greats .
He started by hitting a floater over Bryce Nze and then collected his own miss and powered through a crowd to score the next time down. When Butler whittled the lead down to 4, Scruggs made a reverse layup and then collected a Freemantle miss to draw an and-1 and push the advantage back out to 9. With the game poised at 59-52, Kunkel chased down Chuck Harris and blocked his breakaway layup and it was Scruggs who chased down the loose ball to snuff out the Butler breakaway. After scoring 11 straight points for Xavier, Scruggs drew a pivotal offensive foul on Thompson to fully shift the momentum back to Xavier, cashed out his last two free throws to ice the game, and assisted Kunkel’s exclamation point three to add the flourish to a hard fought Xavier victory. If you only read the box score, you will come away with the impression that Paul Scruggs was the best player on the floor tonight, but the numbers don’t even come close to giving justice to what he meant for Xavier down the stretch and the extent to which he dominated this game during winning time.