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Tough guys win tough games

Xavier was staring down the barrel of an 82% chance at going 0-2 in the Preseason NIT. Then they dug their heels in and made one last push for the summit.

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The scene: media timeout, under 4 to go in the second half. A Xavier roster ravaged by an unpleasant gastrointestinal bug that definitely-not-a-doctor Coach Steele called "very contagious" is trailing 53-49 to Virginia Tech, a team on the brink of the top 25 in the KenPom. The Muskies are down 4 of their top 7 players, and the ones they have on the court are often visibly unwell.

Dwon Odom has been breathing through his mouth in a way that suggests his breath is about 20 degrees hotter than he expected since the first media timeout. Paul Scruggs's usual coordination has failed him, though his will clearly hasn't. Adam Kunkel wasn't sure he was going to be able to go; anyone watching the game wasn't sure how he was. X had an eight-point halftime lead. Now, scoreless for their last six possessions and on the wrong end of a 16-4 run, they're clinging to their last 18.2% of win probability.

X down 53-49, 3:30 left: Paul Scruggs goes 1-2 from the line

This is the first Xavier point anyone but Jack Nunge, Nate Johnson, or Dwon Odom has scored since Cesare Edwards hit a jumper with 5:26 left in the first half. Three players have been attempting to drag a whole team across the finish line in this one. Coach Steele later declines to comment on Scruggs's exact health status, saying only, "he has been getting it out."

X down 53-50, 3:11: Nahiem Alleyne missed jumper, defensive rebound by Dwon Odom

X down 53-50, 2:57: Nate Johnson made three-point jumper, assisted by Paul Scruggs

After scoring 0 points in 5:36, Xavier has scored 4 in 33 seconds to crawl out of the shallow grave they'd been rolled into. Even with the score tied, KenPom's algorithm has Xavier with just a 39% chance of victory after this shot. I'm sure that's down to Va Tech being the higher rated team and having the ball, but I'd like to think part of it is because even a computer can recognize that having half your active roster hugging trash cans at media timeouts is bad for your chances of winning. Sure enough...

Game tied 53-53, 2:34: Nahiem Alleyne makes layup

Alleyne led three Hokies in double figures with a team-high 18. He shot 3-7 from deep on the game and is shooting 41% from beyond the arc on the season. Owing to this, Xavier's closeout on him was just a hair enthusiastic, and he slashed from the right wing across the lane. Still with plenty of work to do, he rose off the wrong foot for a tough lefty finish at the rim. After X tied the game at the other end, this was a gut punch.

X down 55-53, 2:19: Dwon Odom turnover, Sean Pedulla steal

X down 55-53, 2:16: foul on Adam Kunkel

Dwon Odom was by and large excellent for X, shooting 4-5 and dishing out 4 assists. Here though, he got just a hair ahead of himself and coughed it up to Sean Pedulla. Dwon and Kunk raced back, both somehow improbably getting close to Pedulla as he rose to lay it in. Kunk took a "no easy buckets" approach on Pedulla's arms, but the Va Tech freshman was still able to get the layup heading towards the rim. Dwon was there to erase the attempt in spectacular fashion.

Nobody could protest that Kunkel fouled Pedulla, and nobody did. Crucially, he split the free throws.

X down 56-53, 1:56: Jack Nunge made three-point jumper, assisted by Paul Scruggs

Not dead yet. Once again holding about 20% win probability on KenPom's chart, Xavier worked a two-man set with Paul Scruggs and Jack Nunge on the left wing. As Scruggs went to work in the post against Keve Aluma after a switch, Sean Pedulla hesitated on whether to dig or play straight up. Seeing the guard caught in no-man's land, Scruggs kicked to Nunge on the wing. The seven-footer's stroke was pure, and Xavier drew level.

Game tied 56-56, 1:31: Keve Aluma missed layup, defensive rebound by Jack Nunge

Eight days before this game, Jack Nunge had never played 30 minutes in a college basketball contest. He got 31 against OSU and here, on his way to 33 in his first start as a Xavier Musketeer, he reeled in his 13th defensive rebound of the game. He would finish with 14, half of Xavier's team total. With Miles and Hunter too sick to even sit the bench and Zach Freemantle not at that point cleared for basketball activity, Nunge was a rock.

Game tied 56-56, 1:07: Paul Scruggs layup blocked by Justyn Mutts, defensive rebound by Justyn Mutts

Rats. With the ball and a chance to take the lead, Xavier was briefly ascendant in the game. Justyn Mutts erased that with a clean block of Scruggs at the rim. The legs that buried EJ Liddell were drained by three days of digestive trouble.

Game tied 56-56, :45: Keve Aluma made layup, assisted by Justyn Mutts. Foul on Adam Kunkel.

All credit to Va Tech, this was a really good set. Off the left wing, they set a ball screen and a big-to-big screen in quick succession. Xavier - in a four-guard lineup that Coach Steele would later admit they hadn't even practiced with - got caught in the blender a bit. The result was a nice high-low look that had Adam Kunkel riding Keve Aluma's wrist to the rim.

Aluma is shooting 79% from the line on the season. He was off the mark here though, and the miss fell into Jack Nunge's waiting hands.

X down 58-56, :25: Nate Johnson made three-point jumper, assisted by Dwon Odom.

Unflappable, Xavier came down and began rotating the ball. It swung to Dwon, who just for a second looked like he was contemplating being a hero from about 23 feet out. Quick as a tick in a New York minute - and so fast color commentator Fran Fraschilla could almost be forgiven for thinking he walked - the career 12.5% three-point shooter put the ball on the deck instead, driving hard for the middle of the floor with his left hand.

For the second time inside the final media timeout, Va Tech collapsed off of a shooter. This time it was Nate Johnson, who took Odom's athletic leaping pass and traded it in for three points.

X up 59-58, :01: Hunter Cattoor missed jumper, offensive rebound by Justyn Mutts, Justyn Mutts missed layup.

The job wasn't done there, as Xavier was now tasked with holding the first lead they'd had since the 5:56 mark to the end of the game. Va Tech called timeout to get the ball into Hunter Cattoor's hands, but Odom hounded him into a contested pull-up jumper. Justyn Mutts rose highest for the last of his game-high three offensive rebounds, but his tip was a hair strong and bounced out off the back iron. The buzzer confirmed Xavier as victorious.

It wasn't a work of art, but it was a top-to-bottom team effort. With half the rotation sidelined and some of the players left clearly not 100%, every next man up did the job for the Muskies. Ben Stanley, Cesare Edwards, and Kyky Tandy had combined for 39 minutes coming into the game; they all gave Xavier valuable contributions. Dwon Odom could not have been more destructive defensively, and he could scarcely have been more efficient on offense.

Paul Scruggs and Adam Kunkel were perhaps the two players most visibly impacted but still on the court; Scruggs still managed to dish out 7 assists, play 38 minutes, and provide vocal leadership, and Kunkel all but literally played his guts out as part of Steele's crunch time lineup. Jack Nunge was the horse Steele rode in the paint; he dominated the glass and drilled two huge threes.

Finally, Nate Johnson owned the night. He posted 15 in the first half before some defensive adjustments by Va Tech made clean looks harder for him to come by. He held his nerve and kept his powder dry though, and when the horn sounded, he had shot Xavier to victory with a legendary 30-point performance on 10-14/7-11/3-4 shooting.

I think we learned something about X on Friday. When this team gets healthy, watch out.