For much of tonight’s game, it looked like a familiar tale. All of Xavier’s flaws were fully on display as Kent State raced to an early lead and threatened to run away with the game entirely. Powered by Duquesne transfer Sincere Carry (18/3/4), the Golden Flashes were the team to seize the game in the early going and, aided by a litany of Xavier mistakes, looked like they were going to join Miami in the ranks of MAC teams to beat a high major opponent in this young season.
Off of 12 Xavier first half turnovers, 10 of which came in the first 12 and a half minutes of the game, Kent scored 13 of their 36 first half points and had built the lead as high as 10 in the early going. Xavier’s main advantage, the fact that the only Kent State player over 6’7”, Justyn Hamilton (13/3/0), struggled with foul trouble, was a wash in the first half, with the teams each scoring 12 points in the paint. Even the good fortune of a basket being chalked off for an uncalled shot clock violation only set Xavier up to once again turn the ball over to end what looked like the first half of a dreary performance.
If the first half was an exploration of Xavier’s flaws, the beginning of the second half was a slow slog of improvement as Xavier tried to will themselves back into the game. If their talent wasn’t going to get this win, the by golly sheer application might. It started with Jerome Hunter (6/9/3) throwing the ball off the rim to himself a bunch of times before finally getting bored and scoring, followed by a Paul Scruggs (23/7/3) three to tie the game. Xavier was back! Within a minute, Kent was back ahead by 5. Still, Scruggs was getting cooking and he scored another couple of buckets before Nate Johnson (5/6/2) stopped and popped a three to give Xavier a lead. Now, surely, Xavier was back! Within a minute Kent was back up 5. Every time the Musketeers punched, Carry and Kent State had an answer, usually aided by a turnover.
Scruggs, however, was not done and sparked yet another run. This one would see Adam Kunkel (7/3/4) drill a corner three off of a beautiful cross court pass from the fastbreaking Hunter and, after a pair of Carry free throws, the team found themselves tied at 52 heading into the final 10 minutes. If Scruggs was the spark that stated the fire for Xavier, Colby Jones (19/8/1) was the fuel that made it last. He scored 11 of Xavier’s next 16 as the Musketeers clicked into gear and went on a 16-2 run over the next 7 minutes to take control of the game and secure the win. Powered by Jack Nunge’s (11/6/0) unflinching physicality around the rim at both ends, Xavier outscored Kent 18-4 in the paint in the second half and 9-2 on second chances. Perhaps even more crucially, Kent State did not score a point off of a Xavier turnover in the second half.
As Xavier’s confidence grew, the mistakes disappeared, and the energy rose as every loose ball became a Xavier possession. It was perhaps the crowning moment of the defensive masterclass that was the last 10 minutes when Carry picked up his dribble off the left side of the lane and tired to create something, only to be met by Xavier’s wall of fast twitch muscle and flailing limbs, Dieonte Miles (0/3/1). Unable to surmount the 10 inch height discrepancy, he looked to pass, only to find his every lane obscured by the monstrous wingspan of the 6’11” sophomore. Carry tried to create contact, but Miles was too quick for him again and, having exhausted his options, the whistle blared to signal a 5 second violation. The man who had made Kent State believe they could pull off the upset was left flummoxed and defeated in the face of Xavier’s swarming defensive intensity by the end of the night and, if that is a thread that carries through to the Ohio State game, Xavier fans may have witnessed this team forge their identity on the defensive end tonight.