There was a time when Cincinnati came into each meeting with Xavier with a reasonable expectation that they would win the game. After all, Xavier was the scrappy upstart squad from the smaller conference with far less national fanfare. Nowadays, the situations of the programs have flipped, except the Bearcats seem to have missed the memo that the less heralded team raises their game for the greatest rivalry in college basketball. For the third year in a row, Xavier bullied another timid iteration of a UC program that erroneously still pays lip service to the idea that their identity is found in their toughness.
For the first 7 minutes of this game, Wes Miller’s Bearcats were effective in deploying their strategy, which seemed to be flopping and flailing at any sign of physical contact and hoping a comically bad, albeit unbiased, refereeing crew would reward their tactics. They led 11-10 and Xavier looked out of sorts on offense, save for Jack Nunge, who already had 6 points and looked for all the world like a force for which UC’s largely ineffective front line had no answer.
From there, Xavier’s superior depth and toughness took over. A 25-9 run would place control completely in the hands of the Musketeers as 7 different players scored in the game’s decisive stretch. Nunge himself would chip in 8 as Xavier rained buckets on a UC team that had no answer to stop the Musketeers and few on how to penetrate a swarming defense that kept them off balance with a variety of man, zone, and press looks. Xavier’s lead would swell to 16 before the teams exchanged baskets before the half and went to the locker rooms with the game all but decided. Xavier’s lead was not insurmountable at 42-27, but it would take a team with a good deal more fight than this version of the Bearcats to climb back into this one. After 20 minutes, UC was beaten and they knew it.
The first 4:29 of the second half featured 0 made field goals before David DeJulius hit a jumper and Nunge responded with a rare 4 point play to signal that he had not left the talent that set him apart from UC’s big men in the locker room. He would go ahead and score Xavier’s next 9 and a sweet Adam Kunkel tear drop nearing the 10 minute mark would balloon the lead over 20 and put paid to the idea that the beginning of the Wes Miller era in the shootout would be any different to the end of the John Brannen era. Xavier continued to pour it on from a variety of places as Colby Jones, hampered by early foul trouble. make his presence felt and Adam Kunkel provided his best livewire energy alongside Dwon Odom’s bulldog relentlessness.
In the end, Xavier’s bench accounted for 56 points, Xavier outscored UC in the paint by 12, and Nunge led Xavier to complete domination of the glass. The Bearcats will limp back across town amongst the screeching protests of their fans that UC is now a football school knowing that there is scarcely an aspect of the game in which they were not thoroughly dominated tonight.
When this game is looked back upon, the story will be about 2 men. As much as Brian O’Connell and Jamie Luckie tired to make themselves those two men, no one will remember their putrid contribution to an otherwise enjoyable spectacle. Instead people will see this game as perhaps not a crowning achievement for Paul Scruggs’ Xavier career, but a significant one. And tonight, he was vintage Scruggs. 14/5/5 with a pair of steals and only 1 turnover while flustering DeJulius into 12 points on 13 shots was exactly what Xavier needed from their super senior. He never took over and went shot hunting, he just quietly made play after play that needed made and when the dust had settled, he was the first X player to beat UC 4 times. If the historical achievement belonged to Scruggs, the man of the hour is Jack Nunge. 31/15/2 says a lot, but does not say it all. Nunge was utterly unstoppable tonight. No one UC threw at him could do anything but hack him, and hack him they did. Ado and Oguama combined for 9 fouls in 25 minutes, unable to keep Nunge quiet within the laws of the game. His 4 point play was a rarity, but his one handed tip in with Oguama draped on him to give Xavier their first double digit lead of the game was his most spectacular contribution. His performance was one that will live on in the annals of Shootout lore as one of the standout contributions in the history of this rivalry. This was the Jack Nunge game.